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Article by Neill Barston | 5th July 2018

Transforming Tunbridge Wells

With developments valued at close to £500 million set to regenerate Tunbridge Wells town centre over the next five years, the area’s economy is proving resilient. While challenges lie ahead for its vital retail sector, INDEX explores the prospects for the major projects in the town’s transformation.

As approval is granted for redevelopment of some of the most significant central sites in Tunbridge Wells to be brought forward in decades, the historic spa town stands at a pivotal point in its overall development.

While nationally, major retailers such as House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer have announced cuts to their numbers of stores and other big names have already closed their doors, Tunbridge Wells, with its mix of boutique and independent companies alongside chain stores, appears to be weathering the present turbulence.

This was underlined by the long-awaited decision to regenerate the former ABC cinema site (valued at £80 million) and the recent sale of the Royal Victoria Place shopping centre site for a sum of £96 million to the British Land consortium.

As a key retail focus for the town, the site’s purchase is set to pave the way for other major schemes that hold the keys to the area’s future prosperity. According to the British Retail Consortium, national figures for retail vacancy rates within town centres stand at around 8.9%, with the last available figures for Tunbridge Wells showing the town was in line with this trend, having actually shown a slight fall in available retail space compared to results from the previous two years.

Yet, one thing is for certain, with latest studies revealing that 26% of Brits shop online at least once a week, town centre stores that are either national chains, or independent traders, are now working harder than ever to compete with the added burden of business rates. With so much competition in many product categories, it’s those shops that go the extra mile in customer service and physical design and layout of their sites that are thriving in this digitally dominated age.

Speaking last month on BBC Radio Kent, former Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey responded to the alarming situation of major retailers experiencing financial downturn. In his view, town centres need to be re-shaped with government support to design imaginative shopping facilities that are not simply clones of other high streets.

“High streets are important for our future – we need a hub or community centre. We need towns to have an identity that people can associate with and also are proud of. They need to be based on things wider than shops; on health, education and leisure in order to make them a great place to go,” commented Mr Grimsey.

Despite such sobering verdicts on our high streets, as INDEX has previously reported, one major factor in the town’s favour is its status of having been voted as among the most desirable places within the country to live and work. Consequently, the borough is regarded as one of the most affluent in Kent, with residents having a comparatively high level of disposable income to support its retail sector.

Fit for the future

As far as Tunbridge Wells is concerned, one of its long-running redevelopment sagas has been addressed with the decision to approve the £90 million site for a revamped civic centre and new theatre for the town.

The ambitious scheme, which has proved controversial with some opposing scrapping the existing facilities, forms a key part of the investment totalling hundreds of millions that is due to take shape within the town by 2022.

Though the major project for Calverley Square, which includes council offices and a 1,200 seat theatre – and for which the Borough Council has appointed Mace as the lead contractor – has not been without its critics who have questioned the need for the redevelopment, it forms part of a wider trench of investment for the town that has been put at well over £450 million.

Perhaps the most broadly supported of these ventures is the regeneration of the former cinema site off Mount Pleasant Road, that after more than a decade standing derelict is finally getting the major makeover it deserves.

Beyond a new three-screen cinema there will be 100 flats, creating around several hundred new jobs in the process and providing a valuable leisure resource.

Clearly, such assets being brought back into use will equip Tunbridge Wells with a leisure and retail offering to enable it to compete with other towns in the region.

As the town’s MP Greg Clark, who serves as the government’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, explains, the area is continuing to thrive despite wider economic challenges. “Tunbridge Wells has always had a combination of large retailers and small independent shops. Some of the big shops like Hoopers and Fenwick – along with the chain stores – draw people into the town who then spend money elsewhere, including small shops and independents,” said the MP, adding: “We are not just a shopping destination for local residents – a lot of people travel from across West Kent and East Sussex to enjoy the great variety of shops, cafes and restaurants that Tunbridge Wells has to offer.”

Changing times

Similarly, Karen Pengelly, Tunbridge Wells Town Centre Manager, welcomed the area’s upcoming series of retail, housing and civic developments. Though she acknowledged that trading environments often undergo periods of change, she felt the area was well placed to emerge from the present economic climate, saying: “The announcement of British Land completing their purchase of RVP is outstandingly good news, not just for RVP but for the town as a whole. Added to the development that will commence in December/January on the former cinema site, the plans for the Corn Exchange and the planning consent for the new civic development, it all adds up to a record sum being invested in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

“UK town centres are undergoing lots of changes at present due to changes in our shopping habits and increased cost pressures for businesses, but Tunbridge Wells is very well placed to cope with these changes – a number of our small local businesses are currently experiencing growth and solid trading figures.

Meanwhile, Tony Porter, Director at developer Regalpoint Homes, believed there was a strong demand for housing developments within the town centre, with the company receiving promising feedback from the launch of its latest development, Regal Gate, last month. He cited the town’s easy connections to London, offering a laid back commuter-friendly environment as core reasons driving demand for housing.

As a result of this, there have been a number of instances in which retail space has been converted into property due to relaxed government guidelines. However, the council has recently addressed this, declaring 20 sites around the town to be of strategic value, requiring additional planning permission in a bid to retain its retail heart.

Council backing

Councillor Tracy Moore, Economic Development and Communication portfolio holder for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, also felt that there was considerable optimism for the town. “It seems clear that the decision by British Land to purchase Royal Victoria Place, and Altitude Real Estate, who are developing the former cinema site, to invest millions in the town is an indication of its healthy future and growing economic prosperity. We are going to see major changes in the town over the next 10 years and this investment and the council’s own plans for development will play an important role in delivering growth.”

A spokesperson for the borough council explained there was in fact support available for small firms to help with business rate relief. Among key initiatives are business workshops and events surrounding Small Business Saturday, as well as pop-up schemes to help back independent traders.

Supporting local businesses

Tunbridge Wells-based Federation of Small Businesses Development Manager Alison Parmar believed it was vital the town’s independent companies are supported. She highlighted the fact that small firms make up 97% of the county’s economy and their needs must be considered when larger developments are being unveiled.

“We’re aware there is a massive struggle on the high street at the moment which can result in empty shops – but it doesn’t have to be like this,” said Alison, adding: “Overhead costs such as business rates are at an all-time high, and consumer loyalty is so fickle businesses have to offer something really special to get their custom. This is where small businesses can play an amazing part. Small firms are able to be flexible, responsive, create trends and be on trend far easier than a large multinational.

“Look at how Camden Road has taken off recently with so many exciting independent businesses opening. Small businesses often offer a bespoke service, high levels of customer service and play a great part in the local community, perhaps by buying locally or recruiting locally. They can be the reason a shopper goes to a particular part of town. There are some exciting big developments ahead for Tunbridge Wells,” explained the FSB consultant, who said measures such as business rate relief and providing co-working space and pop-up opportunities were vital to ensure a varied town centre.

The next few years are likely to prove a critical chapter in the town’s history, but its vibrant mix of larger chains and high-end boutique stores has made the area a thriving destination that continues to attract investment.

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