Building Back Barnstaple Better
Based on a survey I ran on my website, backed up by thousands of leaflets delivered throughout Barnstaple, we have enough results to see the trends and views the people of Barnstaple have about their town centre and where we should be looking to invest.
I realise that many people are fed up with filling out surveys and just want to see action - but the pandemic has changed so much.
Barnstaple, as the retail capital of Northern Devon had faired reasonably well compared to many town centres across the UK. Online shopping and the move away from High Street retail was something that was always happening, but Barnstaple was behind the curve of the natural change.
We are not behind the curve anymore.
The Government’s Future High Street Fund will see a £6.5 investment in the town, but this will not solve all the problems we are currently seeing like littering and anti social behaviour. It will help, but it will not totally address the need for more housing in the town centre or make us less reliant on an ever reducing retail offering. Barnstaple town centre needs to adapt and be a social destination, a place to spend time and not just money.
In the survey I tried to capture some important data on what people want but also how attitudes may have changed. When asked “As shops re-open, are you more or less likely to use Barnstaple High Street?”, understandably most people answered that their usage would be much the same, 32% said more, 19% said less. This could be seen as encouraging, but high street footfall is on the decline across the country, to ensure that people do come to our town centres more often, we must give them what they need and want.
The main questions asked people what they would like to see, scored between 1 and 10, 10 being the most positive reaction.
When asked about:
Further pedestrianisation of Barnstaple town centre, including better cycle and walking links.
The averaged response was 6.5, the lowest response to all of the options. Cycling and walking links do help make town centres more accessible and vibrant, however, the majority of people do not cycle and if they are shopping, most people will opt for a car.
Bringing more housing into Barnstaple town centre, be that above shops of converting more buildings like the old Civic Centre into accommodation.
All of the responses were positive as everyone wants to see investment. The response here was 7.1, we will speak more about housing later but nobody likes to see empty disused buildings, especially an eyesore like the old Civic Centre.
Bringing local services like NHS, Police and Council front desks into Barnstaple town centre/High Street.
At 7.5 as an average response this was quite strong and I do believe that a lot of how Barnstaple’s town centre will change will be to bring more services into the town. This is one of the reasons why having the main library, the job centre, the theatre, the cinema and the museum, and keeping them is so important. The town centre needs to be retail++.
Investment in public transport, be that new or better rail links or an improved local bus service.
At 8.1 this was the top result, and everyone wants to see better public transport. Barnstaple is the centre of our main bus route and there are improvements happening to the Barnstaple to Exeter train line. I do want to see more town buses, getting people from the outskirts of town in, but we do need to ensure that people use them.
More attention and budget dedicated to cleaning the streets, maintaining street furniture, lighting and railings.
This is a particularly relevant point as this links to many individual comments and emails that I have received, in that some people will not go into the town centre because it is messy, unsafe and just not a nice place to be. At 7.7 this point was well supported, and I have been working with Barnstaple in Bloom and have brought Devon County and North Devon Council to Barnstaple to see things that small amounts of money and community help could resolve. If anyone has not read or has not heard of ‘Broken Window’ theory, as referenced in the Prime Minister’s conference speech, it is a metaphor for disorder and decline in neighbourhoods and summarises what has been happening in Barnstaple over the last few years.
With the constant struggle we have with housing in North Devon I was interested to hear people’s views on housing. It has been particularly bad recently with the severe shortage of private lets, but there has always a tension between those who need housing and those who do not want to see any more houses being built.
When asked if they thought that North Devon needed any more homes 60% or respondents said no. The same people, however, in the next question, when asked where they would like to see homes built, 36% said in the town centre, close to services or on brownfield sites.
We need developments that communities can support; we need more affordable homes for local people. Typically, in England around 15% of homes in a local authority area are designated as affordable, being those run by housing associations or councils, but in North Devon only 8% fit these criteria, where rents are on average £120 per week. For housing associations and councils to increase this percentage, they do need to build new homes as purchasing existing properties would be very expensive.
This is where the renovation and reallocation of brownfield land in our town centres can help. It would be fair to say that people have not warmed to many large out of town developments, we will still need some of those, but we must use the space we have more effectively.
Planning changes are on the way and I am keen that these changes involve fixing some unhelpful tax incentives for short term lets and that we see covenants for primary occupation. We cannot continue the building of new homes that are just used as holiday lets and second homes. While both contribute to our economy, our economy means little if those working locally cannot afford or even find somewhere to live.
The final question of note was simple.
Do you think that with the right investment that the future is bright for Barnstaple?
While almost as many people did not know as said no, over 50% said yes.
Barnstaple does have a lot to offer as both a retail destination and as a place to meet people and socialise. While some of the retail units are empty we should not ignore the many new shops, bars, cafes and businesses are investing in our high street. The Pannier Market, Butchers Row and the Boutport Street entrance to Queen Street car park are the current focus of the Government and North Devon Council’s investment. It should not however be the only focus. Investments and changes need to encompass and benefit the whole of the town centre and while I am encouraged with what is happening, we cannot wait around for the next big funding round.
I will continue to lobby for government investment, but we do need our councils to do more, and we can all play our part by supporting the town centre, buying local when we can, help keep Barnstaple clean and tidy and report anti-social behaviour.