Lookin’ good, King Street

The Twickenham Area Action Plan is now out for public consultation until 31 August after which a final draft gets submitted for central government review. If approved the plan will be formally adopted in 2013. And as part of the over-arching consultation on the Twickenham action plan, El Brute are also running a consultation on the street scene and highways, in other words those tricky but essential issues like traffic flow, parking, cycle lanes, widening pavements and the location of bus stops.

In life there are more questions than answers and in Twickenham, as you’ll have seen in our most recent High Street Update, there are more shop closures than openings. Or at least that’s the way it seems. Local independents such as Langtons and Par Ici have closed as have national chains such as Clintons. Add to that the turnover in cafes and restaurants and it’s not a pretty sight. The picture painted by Twickenham town centre is not one of a thriving, relatively affluent London suburb but of a town bumping along. It’s true that some of the new arrivals have been well received such as Laverstoke the butcher, Poundland (yes, really) and the transformed Sussex Arms pub, but look around and you’ll see plenty of “to let” signs above shops and offices.

When it comes to some empty premises it’s hard to even remember what was there before it closed. Perhaps we’re being overly pessimistic. If you like charity shops, we’ve certainly no shortage of those but surely the market for second-hand Ben Elton and Alexander McCall Smith novels is already well supplied? There are some signs of life but it’s hard to say whether it’s just the routine churn of shops opening and closing or a genuine sign of a recovery. This website has been running for two years and has seen a good half dozen shops open their doors and then close them again in that time. Depressing stuff.

Another shop to let

When you walk down King Street, Church Street or London Road do you get a sense of regeneration and of a sense of vitality sweeping through the town? Probably not. Perhaps the Twickenham Festival, the plans for an ice rink this winter in the grounds of York House and the opening of the Jubilee Gardens by the river will do the job. They’re all good things which genuinely add something to the “Twickenham experience”. They make it a more interesting destination but they alone can’t save the High Street and nor are they designed to.

El Brute (aka the Council) has been edging its TWickenham Area Action Plan (aka the TWAP) ever closer to becoming a formal plan for the town. But when will El Brute’s TWAP be revealed? The process is certainly taking a while. It’s been, what, over 18 months from its inception to its current status of being “almost ready for publication” but even after that there are more hoops to jump through before it’s formally adopted. It will, or at least should, help set the tone for the developments on the key sites but some of those, like the station and the old Royal Mail sorting office, are already at different stages in the development pipeline. The TWAP also wants to focus different types of businesses in different parts of the town centre to create a shopping zone, a leisure quarter, a DIY holodeck etc. It’s a long term project which needs commercial businesses to buy into the idea as well as the Council and the residents. Fair do’s but does it risk getting overtaken by events or even a change of administration in York House?

In addition to the TWAP, the Council has just launched its Village Plans for the various towns across the Borough. Some of the smaller places in LBRuT might even actually be ‘village-like’ but here at twickerati HQ we think Twickenham isn’t one of them. The Village Plans set out the key issues for each area, give some detail on the planning and development framework and encourage locals to have their say and get involved. You might be thinking it has a whiff of “BS” about it, by which we mean Big Society, and you might have a point, but change generally requires input from people beyond the walls of the nearest council offices. For Twickenham, the Village Plan is essentially the Action Plan and so you’ll already have an idea of most of what it’s about. The TWAP’s progress has been documented on here and elsewhere.

All Quiet on the Twickenham Front

So what’s the mood music like on the High Street? Speaking to a few retailers the common theme to emerge was that business rates (set by national rather than local Government, of course) were too high after recent inflation busting increases, that some landlords were simply being unrealistic (i.e. greedy) in what rents they thought they could charge and that the Council, though well intentioned, had only a limited ability to bring about real change. Funding for new shops signs, such as those on part of London Road, was seen as all well and good, but wasn’t regarded as something to change the shopping habits of local residents. And where pieces of direct action were taking place, like the recent flags initiative, this was often down to the hard work of a few business owners.

Meanwhile a small and totally unscientific survey for this site revealed that those members of the twickerati who were even aware of the TWAP were as sceptical about it as some shop owners. It’s not that the they don’t want things to move forward, they just think the Council has only limited scope to influence change. There’s plenty of good stuff in the plan but when it comes to how it’s going to happen, as one respondent said, “The section on funding was particularly opaque, referring a lot to needing ‘partnership’ but not actually explaining how that would generate the funds needed. In fact they didn’t say what amount of investment is actually needed”.

Another said, “The council need to offer incentives to retailers to get them to set up in the town centre. It’s only charity shops with their tax advantages that can afford to set up. Retailers are getting hammered at the moment from the likes of Amazon and it only makes sense for them to set up if rates are lower. If we don’t, the town centre in 5 years will just be 50 charity shops and a couple of restaurants”.

Again money is at the heart of it and that’s something of a scarce commodity these days. Other locals also despaired at the number of charity shops, and the tendency for quantity to triumph over quality when it comes to local retailers and restaurants. Parking and traffic were also mentioned just as they are in the TWAP. The former ought to be addressable with some clever thinking and a bit of money, the latter is much harder to fix. The river, the railway, the A316 and a lot of houses all limit the options for diverting traffic away from the centre.

El Brute’s website says they’ve allocated £11m towards the development of Twickenham. They’ll need to spend it wisely as it’ll soon get used up.

And where are the Twickenham Advisory Panel (aka the TWickenham Action Team) in all of this? It seems to have gone quiet on that front but they’re probably out there somewhere doing some cogitating and ruminating on the future of the town. Why the low profile? Did they disagree with Lord True, the Blue Baron? Are they perhaps in league with the Yellow Knight and his Lib Dems in plotting some kind of coup? We simply don’t know, but do keep a look out for them around the ‘village’ when you’re out buying your artisan bread and scented candles or sipping your cappuccino as you read your tattered copy of The Number One Ladies Detective Agency from the charity shop next door.

Will you be having your say on the TWAP or your local village plan? Can the Council alone regenerate Twickenham and if not, how’s it going to be done? And what about that Mary Portas off the telly, eh? If she rolled into town with a TV crew in tow, what on earth would you say to her?

* Twickenham Action Plan
* Twickenham “Village Plan”
* Twickenham street scene & highways consultation
* Twickerati item “Bye Bye Bike Lanes” on cycle path changes
* Strawberry Hill “Village Plan”
* East Twickenham & St Margarets “Village Plan”