The three towns that fall within the Newbury constituency have markedly different characters and appeal: from the bijoux charm of the antique and fashion shops of Hungerford to the village community feel of Thatcham. But it is the town centre of Newbury that has undergone the greatest transformation during my lifetime – expanding from Northbrook Street stalwarts like M&S and Boots to the retail attractions of Parkway and thriving café culture of Market Place.
Today Newbury town centre is under pressure like never before – with the closure of John Lewis, Debenhams and now the Hog & Hedge to name just a few. There are signs of closure across the town centre, with one resident telling me that of 279 business units in the town he had identified that 55 were closed – approximately 20%. Much of this can be laid at the door of Coronavirus – with health concerns, Government regulations and working from home recalibrating the way we live and our appetite for entering out. But there are other factors at play. When I spoke to the Head Office of John Lewis they told me that dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour and online shopping had permanently affected the Newbury store’s viability. Covid had accelerated its closure but was not its cause.
Nobody can predict what the future holds (or whether it will ever be quite the same) but I am confident that with the right focus and creativity we can build a sustainable recovery for Newbury town centre.
In recent months I have participated in meetings with the West Berkshire Economic Development Company in which the future of the high street has been a particular focus. Most recently we were joined by Mark Robinson, Chair of the High Street Task Force who provided strong examples of reinventing and restructuring the high street.
For example, in Southampton his team had radically redesigned the city’s central shopping centre, Marlands, after a series of shop closures. Working with Southampton City Council Mark’s team adapted 13,000 square feet of vacant premises into a combination of shops, a food court, and ‘Eagle Labs’ – which are top-spec workspaces specifically for digital start-ups. In this context he brought together retail with an environment suitable for high-growth businesses.
Likewise in Altrincham, Manchester the High Street Task Force worked with the local council and business groups to form a public-private partnership that transformed its high street (which was 30% vacant when their work began). Regular (and rotating) markets that showcased local artisanal products were complemented by workspaces for start-ups and independent businesses and the town’s Goose Green (akin to a blend of Newbury’s Park Way and Market Place) was transformed into a space combining gyms, shops and food outlets with facilities for young children to create a lure for young families.
In the months ahead, I want to build on these examples by bringing together District and Town Councillors, local businesses and experts to harness the potential of Newbury’s high street. We already know that we don’t have enough new business premises, that young people would like more activities and many of you still contact me about the loss of our magistrates’ court. We have a strong local identity, heritage and character and now is the time to think boldly and creatively about its future.