Members of the Employment, Business and Investment Scrutiny Committee met yesterday afternoon to discuss a report of the ‘Town Centre Management Task and Finish Group’ – which we trailed here a week ago.
The committee was considering a report from a task and finish group that looked at a range of issues, varying from business rates to to anti social behaviour affecting the town centre. The group concluded that there were several different ‘plans’ in operation already and to help Wrexham Council have clarity on who is doing what and why they should be brought together under a new structure.
The report presented to the meeting cited a ‘Wrexham Town Centre Action Plan’ , which has emanated from the Steering Group of the Town Centre Forum and is as yet unseen by general Town Centre Forum members. Due to this Chairman of the Town Centre Forum Nigel Lewis was invited to attend, along with Chairman of the Town Centre Forum Steering Group Andrew Atkinson.
The meeting was told that the new way of working was not a new strategy, but a new ‘mechanism for a coordinated approach’. A council officer described how the coordination would work, with a director in place and regular meetings to ensure cross departmental work was taking place, rather than in silos.
It was noted that the democratic input would be via councillors shaping the director of that work, ‘setting the direction and the plan’ via the usual processes in place – such as Scrutiny / Executive Board decision making pathways.
Mr Atkinson addressed the meeting at this point explaining he was there to represent the views of the Town Centre Forum and Steering Group, however as the forum was not a constituted body as of yet it ‘would be difficult to speak on behalf of the group until we properly adopt the memorandum’. Mr Atkinson clarified he would be stating his own views, and what he believes was the views of the group to be – a subtle difference.
Overall Mr Atkinson said he thought the proposals were ‘really good’, however voiced concerns over the use of the ‘partnership’ term: “I think we’ve got to give more thought moving forward what to what partnership is between the Steering Group and council. There have been problems in the past, there have been down times in the partnership with the forum with partnerships not there at times, but it is very good at the moment.
“I have suggested before having something formally in place. If the Steering Group is to be a truly representative body, perhaps we could strengthen that by for example being a statutory consultee on planning applications. For example if there is an application with signage or street lighting, come and see the group to see the views of traders?
“My own fear is the council may at different points say they have consulted town centre traders and we might not have known that was a consultation, and it was a chat with 15 people in a room, yet at a later date it is said they were consulted. Can we see how we can strengthen that link up?”
With the Town Centre Forum Steering Group’s ‘action plan’ being mentioned at several points and in the meeting documents themselves the question was raised if any of the councillors had in fact see the plan. It appeared the plan was news to those present, as it was not included in the document packs circulated. Cllr Dana Davies did note that those on the task and finish group had seen it.
Mr Atkinson added: “I am not sure who has seen it, but we are not some dark and secretive group. I am worried people have not seen the plan, it speaks of ‘buy in’ of the private sector, and we have share that plan to show what we are doing, and timescales against it.
“Everything is weighted against it, we don’t have a town council, we don’t have single town centre pot of money and we will pull it together on this plan. No one is seeing that plan, the public are not seeing that plan and there are no time scales. It is fabulous we are working together on this, but how are we going to measure success?”
A council officer pointed out that Wrexham Council were not withholding the ‘action plan’, pointing out they believed it was in the ownership of the Town Centre Forum and it was up to them to release it.
The planning officer present also told Mr Atkinson that ‘planning application lists were published on the council’s website, so anyone was able to comment if they wished’.
Explaining the situation from the reverse position, Mr Atkinson added: “If we cannot find a way of demonstrating this partnership, if in a document you say we are consulted, I would have to say back no you have not. It is a chat in a room, and in absence of something more formal, I would have to say don’t mention us.”
Mr Lewis, speaking as forum chairman, highlighted his ambition to see ‘a vibrant Wrexham’. He said: “All we used to talk about in the forum was the cost of the parking charges, and how that impacted on the town centre.
“When parking charges went up in February 2014 it had significant detrimental effect on traders. We did a lot of work on that and ultimately working with officers and councillors, they accepted the proposals for more variable charges.
“To me that is an example of left hand not talking to the right hand. The views I have had on lots of things on working with council is they make decision over here, but not understanding impact over there.
“To see this report put forward where all of the town centre activity, responsibility of emptying bins, investment, the masterplan – whatever, it is really pleasing to see that these things are focused via one executive director is a very positive step”.
The meeting then went off piste or back on topic depending on your viewpoint, with councillors acknowledging good work in the town centre, by forum member and others, but talking more about the internal Wrexham Council coordination plans.
Cllr Neil Rogers spoke saying ‘the important thing today is that we have a coordinated approach’, highlighting the wide range of departments that will be included in the overarching communication ranging from economic development to tourism. Cllr Rogers also stressed it would take in rural development and not just the town centre itself, and urged ‘that those on the outskirts of the area do not feel excluded’.
Cllr Alun Jenkins then spoke on his understanding of the report before the meeting and his experience on what the work the task and finish group was carrying out, saying he believed it was about how council resources were being best used as they diminish.
“It is how we run the council services in the town centre, and how we do that best. It is very different from the Masterplan, which is a planning tool. It is not part of the remit of this committee to consider that,” said Cllr Jenkins.
“Our plan is chalk and cheese with the Masterplan, and your Town Centre Forum plan is another thing. How we bring services together is a small part of your Town Centre Forum plan, but we are a partner working with you.
“As a council we have to look at what services we provide, across multiple departments, and ensure they are co-ordinated for the benefit of the town centre. What we are talking about today is very different from the purpose of report today and purpose of the task and finish group.”
Several councillors mentioned the upcoming elections and how plans now would be up to the new council in May to be enacted.
Cllr Davies agreed, noting that informal meetings and informal structures had been tried in good faith before and although there was some success a more formal approach was deemed as required by the task and finish group.
She said: “We have tried in the past with informal meetings, and different departments fell away, and there was no formal structure. What we came across quite quickly was the opportunity to create conditions for effective partnership working.”
Cllr Davies acknowledged the Town Centre Forum’s plan, and noted there would be ‘cross cutting themes’ over various areas and that is where working together would fit in, rather than the earlier implication from the representatives from the Forum that their ‘action plan’ would be part of that itself.
Cllr Phil Wynn spoke of informal processes and ‘chats’, giving a mini case study on commercial bins in the town centre that he has tackled, noting meetings and follow up meetings were taking place but informally.
He noted that other councillors without wards in the town centre itself may not see such issues as a greater priority as he would. Cllr Wynn also referenced the economic climate, stating: “Things we currently do we will struggle to do going forward, so we need partnership working to plug holes in the future.”
Cllr Derek Wright voiced his view that external funding should be part of the discussion and noted in any output, specifically mentioning the Vibrant and Viable Places money: “We need to acknowledge how outside funding will be important to improve town centre, I am surprised it is not in the document due to how important it is.”
Mr Lewis picked up the VVP funding as an example where a more formalised and emboldened Town Centre Forum could go in his view, saying he would like it if the forum was kept informed of new bids and be involved in consultation to ‘where and what type of places the money is spent’.
After the meeting we spoke to a slightly puzzled Mr Atkinson who told us: “I was very pleased with the report and the committees desire to approve it as I think it’s a big step in the right direction for the town and they have clearly listened, identified problems and acted, this can only be a good thing.
“I was a bit perplexed as there were a number of things in the report I passed comment on and scrutinised myself, for example the term ‘partnership working’ which didn’t seem to generate any further discussion.
“My concern is that the council want to work in partnership with the forum, and this is great, but what does partnership mean? My worry is that the council may in future say that they have ‘consulted with the traders’ by bringing something to our group.
“To me, there has to be a proper consultation of all traders and the forum, that represents everyone’s views or just don’t use our name in reports to back up decisions. As the Town centre Forum is now a key part of the council’s plans, which is great, I felt this needed more scrutiny, either in that meeting or to be recommended for a future agenda.”
The committee agreed to propose to the Executive Board that the co-ordination strategy gets the green light, and the various new structures being formalised to make that happen. The plans will now go before an Executive Board in the near future.