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Question over Wrexham’s “brand” raised as the town Masterplan is debated

Town centre living, regeneration, transportation and the future of Wrexham’s branding have been listed as important factors in taking the town centre forward.

The topics were raised during December’s Employment, Business and Investment Scrutiny Committee, which saw Councillors updated on the progress of the ‘Town Centre Masterplan’.

The hefty document, which was first unveiled in 2015, outlines Wrexham Council’s “vision and priorities in respect of the Town Centre and how other plans and strategies feed into this.”

Funded by Vibrant and Viable Places money from the Welsh Government, the document received support of the Executive Board last year. It is hoped the plan will help influence decision making and direction of the town centre over the next 10 years.

In a report presented before members of the committee during this month’s meeting, it was noted that: “Using the Masterplan as a ‘framework for decision making for proposals within the Masterplan area’ has a wider scope than purely planning related matters.”

The Masterplan is also described as a “a regeneration tool for use by the Housing and Economy Department as a means of marketing and promoting the town centre.”

The meeting saw a broad debate on the future of the town direction of centre, with comments made about potential housing developments, retail space and rebranding / firming up an identity for Wrexham.

Speaking at the meeting Executive Director of Place and Economy, Lee Robinson, explained the Masterplan had seven key priorities, including – improving the town centre identity, accessibility, the evening economy, town centre living, making the town greener and accommodating the needs of a growing population.

As part of the Masterplan a Town Centre Regeneration Delivery Group has been established to “provide a forum / management network supporting the effective co-ordination of all physical regeneration activities in the town centre. The group, which meets on a monthly basis, consists of council officers from various departments.

A second group, consisting of council officer and relevant lead councillors, has also been created as part of the recently implemented town centre strategy. This is noted as meeting quarterly in the meeting report.

However Cllr Marc Jones, who represents the Grosvenor ward, voiced concern that no town centre councillors were involved in either of the meetings.

Cllr Jones said: “I think of the problems I feel was as a town centre councillor, and I’m not looking to get onto anymore council committees, is I’m concerned we have two council groups listed in this report, one quarterly and monthly, entirely made up of council officers and lead members.

“I understand talking to Glyndwr University, the police and Coleg Cambria, but there doesn’t seem to be any elected representatives who live in the town centre.”

Mr Robinson said representations from town centre councillors would be made through an existing monthly meeting between members which could “feed into process” via a two way dialogue.

He added: “In relation to the night time economy, we do need to feed into that. The purpose of that smaller group is to set a strategic direction and for the other group to be the delivery group.

“I am confident town centre representatives will get a great deal of say.”

Reference was also made about the lack of business representation and the Town Centre Forum – with plans to strengthen the relationship between the business community and council going forward.

The evening prior to the scrutiny Mr Robinson had attended the December Town Centre Forum and had agreed that in future he would attend more meetings and had already met with the new chairman.

The absence from lead members and heads of department in the Town Centre Forum has been noticeable over the past 12 months, with a series of angry tirades resulting in some councillors stop attending altogether.

Mr Robinson explained that he had met with the new Chairman of the Town Centre Forum Alex Jones and Chairman of the Town Centre Steering Group, Sam Regan and is “keen to take the views of everyone on board” going forward.

Describing the relationship between the council and the forum as “acrimonious”, Mr Robinson added: “I can’t understand how we have locked horns. We have the same agenda and want the best for the town, improving that can only be of benefit to the town.”

However Cllr Atkinson, who has sat on the forum since 2014, stood in as temporary Forum chairman and Steering Group chair, suggested that the council was not necessarily to blame for the breakdown in communication with the Town Centre Forum and shouldering some of the blame was being overly diplomatic.

Cllr Atkinson said: “I don’t think the blame can be laid at the council door at all, it is a two way street. We’ve always wanted a better partnership.

Speaking critically of the previous running of Forum meetings he added: “I think the biggest issue is we need to make sure the forum realises it is not a scrutiny meeting where it can grill council officers. We have to recognise the council and officers have different priorities.

“If we can hopefully work together better in the future, it would be a lot better.”

One of the key elements of the Town Centre Masterplan is the creation of town centre housing and accommodation, via both new builds, above retail and in vacant office space.

In the Masterplan several town sites are identified for potential housing developments, including the Bodhyfryd site.

Cllr Jones said: “I accept housing has to be an important part of this. I am not convinced from what I’ve seen of the map the housing is going to happen in places where you say, because there are existing businesses there in some of those places.

“I wonder how many houses do you envision in the town centre and what sort of housing? I think what sort of housing is crucial to making it a success because if we have innovative, good quality housing, well designed housing as we have in parts of town, then we can deliver something very good as people will want to live in those and shop and be entertained in the town centre.

“It we don’t get right in danger of building slums for the future. I think we have a chance to get it right, to be building energy efficient housing, environmental housing and car free housing. We’ve got to be pro-active, because it we wait for the developers to come up with an option, too often those developers have come up with cheap solution. We need more quality.

“If you numbers in mind I would like to know, how are we going to stimulate that and make it work in developers coming forward?”

Mr Robinson said: “We don’t have specific numbers. There are a whole range of options and opportunities in new builds, encouraging people to live above retail premises, converting retail premises, converting office accommodation.

“There’s a while mix and blend in relation to what we’re trying to do with developing living within town centre, which is the direction we want to go.”

A representative from the housing department added that a balance of social housing, executive housing and intermediate would be required to help generate footfall and support the night time economy. It was also noted that such developments are being considered on “case by case basis”.

Utilising opportunities with vacant space above retail properties are also being explored.

Cllr Sonia Benbow Jones said: “It is good to hear the reference to housing because to have an inner area vibrant and viable you need to have a heart and a pulse and that means people in the area.

“What I am concerned about is integrated transport and delivering of a green inner centre. Are we looking at a park and ride, are we looking to keep vehicles but keep those links to move people around? I think if you do want to improve the quality we do need to look at the impact on traffic.”

Cllr Benbow Jones also referenced the lack of evening transport for people in rural communities who may not be able to enjoy the night time economy, asking what is the council doing to support those people.

The meeting was told of a number of factors were being looked at with regards to transport, including Growth Track 360, impact of HS2 on high speed rail, train connections locally and Wrexham General; along with greener options including walking and cycling routes.

In terms of transport for rural communities, Mr Robinson said: “We always work with the providers in terms of transport providers with how they can extend and modify commercial routes into and out of town

“Buses will only run something if it is commercial route. If there are sufficient people we can provide that detail and tender that as commercial route. The funding to support bus networks is limited and dwindling, we do need a basis.”

Cllr Atkinson asked how the council can control the type of housing developments that can take place in the town centre through the planning process, noting that he has previously spoken of how he would like to see the vacant office space on Henblas Street used as residential apartments for the elderly – which he said would create footfall and have people who would benefit from town centre services.

He added: “I really want to see residential above that block and I know that is the ambitions of the owners.

“If they didn’t just have residential above the block and they decided the old TJ Hughes would make good residential, we would then be in danger of blocking up that vital walkway that we need open again and desperately need to connect Chester Street and Henblas Street.

“What controls have we got to make sure that certain elements stay commercial so there will always be a walkway, or if it was residential we have an archway, as we have killed off part of the town by it being closed.”

However Lead Member for for Planning and Corporate Services, Cllr David Kelly pointed out that he was “mindful” that the conversation was developing into site specific topics and that it wasn’t the forum for any pre-determination of specific housing locations in the town centre due to planning rules.

A representative from the housing department added: “We can control the quality and location of a development. The scale of a development, whether it’s one bed or two bed, we can influence that. We can influence a degree of affordable housing in the town centre.

“What we can’t do is control the occupancy. To that we have to have a discussion with colleagues in housing team and private sector about marketing and pitching where we’re trying to take the the town.”

Issues with the well-documented minority antisocial behaviour in town were also raised, with Cllr Geoff Lowe stating that while he was “all for encouraging leisurely lifestyle” in the town, but questioned if it would it be adequately policed.

Similar concerns were raised by Cllr Nigel Williams, who asked: “How are we working with third sector groups to address issues of the undesirable and anti social element in the town centre?

“I get calls weekly from residents not feeling comfortable. We can pave the streets with gold but if people don’t feel comfortable they won’t come.”

Mr Robinson said: “We have done a significant amount of work trying to address the issues. They’re not unique to Wrexham town centre, just about any urban area in Wales and England will see something similar.”

Referencing the multi-agency ‘Gold’ command group set-up earlier this summer, Mr Robinson offered his assurances that that “work with the third sector, police and health is ongoing.”

With such plans to regenerate Wrexham over the next 10 years, Cllr Adrienne Jeorrett queried what was being done to define the town’s ‘brand’ and how officers were reaching people to explain what the town is becoming.

Regeneration manager at Wrexham Council, Rebeccah Lowry noted that a review of Wrexham’s ‘destination management plan’ was being undertaken, with a draft suggesting that there will be more of a focus on tourism and being a destination.

Cllr David Kelly added: “As mentioned previously, you can have as many plans and schemes and everyone has their own ideas, it comes down to branding.

“Every town and city has a brand, the future of this town will be how it’s branded, it’s as simple as that. It needs to have a distinctive brand, that will bring people in.”

With scrutiny committees now forming their own recommendations going forward rather than approving / amending pre-prepared proposals from officers and lead members, there was one suggested recommendation put forward by Cllr Marc Jones.

It stated that it the scrutiny committee recognise the important of culture, food and drink and housing to the future success of the town centre. It was also proposed the committee note the report and aim to have as much engagement with town centre councillors as possible.

The committee unanimously supported the recommendation put forward by Cllr Jones.

During the meeting we were doing our usual live tweets and observations as well as noting for this type of longer report. One tweet posed a question a Councillor asked to widen it outside the room as it appears it could become a cornerstone question of future town strategy. The tweet had 60 replies, some more constructive than others. You can read the range of replies here…

More tweets from the meeting…

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