Over £10 million of regeneration money invested into Wrexham Town Centre and the surrounding areas was praised, questioned and criticised by councillors during an examination of its spend.
The update on Wrexham Council’s Vibrant and Viable Places project was provided at October’s Employment, Business and Investment Scrutiny Committee.
In January 2014 Wrexham Council were awarded over £10 million in (VVP) funding from the Welsh Government.
The funding, which aims to deliver a three year regeneration programme in Wrexham, has been used to support a portfolio of nine projects in both Wrexham town centre and the adjacent Caia Park and Hightown Communities First cluster.
In total nine themes have featured in Wrexham’s VVP Programme, details of which can be found below.
– Redefining Wrexham town centre
– Creative Industries
– Empty properties into homes
– Affordable Housing / Independent Living
– Improvement of standards in the private rental sector
– South West Wrexham housing renewal area
– Energy Company Obligation
– Affordable childcare
– Skills/Employability development programme
Addressing the committee Lead Member for Economy – Economic Development and Regeneration Cllr Neil Rogers said: “This is an update on where we are and considers areas of improvement. We want to update on the progress.
“There is a lot of information in the report, it’s detailed information and good information there as well.
“I have had a note from officials on Welsh Government on progress – I can’t give any information on VVP 2.”
During the meeting an update was provided on each of the themes, with councillors invited to put forward any questions and comments they had about the VVP spend.
One factor which did come under both scrutiny and praise was ‘Redefining the Town Centre’ – a theme which saw the creation of the Wrexham Town Centre Masterplan.
As part of the VVP spend Wrexham Council approved plans in 2015 to undergo an extensive upgrade of the towns CCTV system.
Funding for the new system came from capital funding of £74k allocated by the Council, with £158k from the Assets and Economic department, and £168k from ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’.
Speaking at the meeting Cllr Rodney Skelland queried if the WiFi element of the CCTV system was still needed, with the town (finally) covered by 4G.
Cllr Hugh Jones said: “When we went out to contract for the provision of CCTV it was some years ago and 4G wasn’t advanced.
“Part of the contract is three years provision of WiFi. It is currently being tested and we hope it will be up and running the next couple of weeks. It is part of the original contract.
“We will review at the end of the three years and see if it something we want to continue with.”
He also noted that the WiFi does not cost £168,000 and it was a ‘bolt on’ to the provision of the CCTV.
Cllr Skelland said: “It is interesting to know how much you’re spending on something we won’t be using in three years.”
Details about the Wifi connection were also provided by Contact Officer for the report, Rebeccah Lowry, who added that the ‘Purple WiFi’ system will allow Wrexham Council to gather data about people’s shopping habits when they hook into the town centre system.
The vacancy rates of shops in the town centre also fell under scrutiny, with Cllr Skelland questionning if the VVP funding had been spent wisely.
Referencing the ‘negative feedback’ he has had about the town, Cllr Skelland said: “You can spend as much money as you want, but if you’re spending it on silly projects – it’s about dealing with the private sector and confidence. Confidence is fundamental to managing the town centre.
“Are you happy that with spending money like this, that you’re spending it on the right things?”
He added: “It makes a huge difference having a small team selling Wrexham, encouraging people to come and work and have shops and things.
“There is nothing of that in this VVP project. I know we didn’t have time to put it together. It’s very difficult to get confidence in the private sector and I’m not convinced. Are you happy it’s going to make a huge difference and in three years time have shops and confidence back?”
The spending of the VVP funding was defended by Cllr Rogers who stated he was happy with how it has been spent and that the changes are ‘not going to happen overnight’.
He added: “It has been recognised by Welsh Government. They don’t just give away £10m, you have to meet the criteria. It covers eco, arts, there is whole list of programmes and I am more than happy. There is a long way to go, we’re not in utopia yet.”
Ms Lowry added: “Marketing can’t fund via VVP. There is work being done with Amanda Davies through events and marketing and the Town Centre Forum.
“There is increased confidence in town. We can’t give a quantifiable output, but believe through enquiries we’ve had we believe the People’s Market and Oriel has shown an interest in people locating here.”
“When we started majority of the 15 shops we owned were empty, in position now where all full.”
Cllr Alun Jenkins called for people to be more positive about the town and that Wrexham needs to be talked up.
He said: “We need to be careful and not always being negative. It is easy to say look at all the empty shops, what is happening in Wrexham is happening all over the country. It’s to a lesser extent in Wrexham.
“This money was given for a particular purpose, we can’t go round filling shops.
“We have to be careful and we have to talk ourselves up. If we don’t rate Wrexham, people may think why would we go there.
“BHS has emptied a huge block in town. It’s empty in towns and cities elsewhere.”
Cllr Jenkins added: “We are going to have empty shops like every other town and cities. The question is what we do with them.
“I am glad we have had the money and are spending it in such a way to tackle the problems in the future. We would be in a weaker position if not had it.”
Continuing on the theme of the town centre spending, Cllr Rogers noted that Wrexham Council had received praise for the authority’s handling of the Arts and Cultural Hub project.
Work on the project, which will see the People’s Market transformed into a combination of market and art space is due to begin early in 2017.
He said: “We have regular dialogue with traders and are meeting regularly. I am not prepared to discuss concessions.
“The view of Welsh Government officials is very complimentary of the progress and our handling this particular programme with the tenants and project itself.”
Cllr Hugh Jones added: “As far as the project is concerned it is on target. Agreed with traders to ensure they have hopefully a successful trade over Christmas and then we will be moving into start the work early in the New Year.
“It is all on target and and on budget up to now.”
Questions were also asked with regards to the ‘Affordable Childcare’ element of the scheme, which saw the creation of Sprouts on Rhosddu Road in year one and now the extension and refurbishment of Sparkles Nursery on Prince Charles Road.
Queries were put forward about the spend of the project and if there was a duplication of services already provided in Wrexham.
It was noted that Sprouts was ‘complimentary’ to other services and was funded by a capital scheme along with income generated by the facility.
Cllr Arfon Jones also asked for reassurance that no subsidy was being used to keep Sprouts running, adding that previously he had been assured that once the ‘VVP capital had been spent, the revenue has to be self sustainable’.
However the committee were told that Sprouts was not featured in the update as the work took place as part of year one of the VVP project.
Ms Lowry added that they could not comment on the running costs and revenue as she was not the operation manager for that particular scheme
Praise was also given for the housing project being carried out under VVP, which has seen a number of homes in the wards surrounding the town centre installed with wall insulation.
Cllr Brian Cameron, whose ward has benefited from the scheme, said: “As part of my ward there is an area that was single cavity brick. there were complaints about heating and so forth. With match funding and VVP we were able to put cavity wall insulation in.
“Speak to any residents, it’s a fantastic inside. This is the second winter which they will feel the benefit. Many residents in my wards have been affected by VVP.”