At the beginning of January, following a discussion in a Waltham Abbey Facebook group, I emailed Waltham Abbey Town Council asking if they’d consider holding a public meeting around how we can make the best of Sun Street, support local traders and whether or not we should invite large retail chains into the street.
I’ve not had a full reply yet (it might be answered at the next full Waltham Abbey Town Council meeting on Wednesday 24th Feb) but on Thursday 21st January Lisa Gates, of Lisa G Studio, organised a meeting of Waltham Abbey’s small businesses to cover similar issues.
This is my take on the meeting, from a Green’s perspective.
It should be remembered that councils are still facing massive cuts to their central government funding and any suggestions which could cost them money need to be viewed in that context.
A few practical problems facing Waltham Abbey’s businesses were raised, including:
This is an issue for both customers and businesses themselves, with differing maximum charges (£3.80 in Cornmill and Darby Drive, £10.00 in Quaker Lane) and inconsistent weekend charges. According to parkopedia.co.uk all three are free on Sundays but Quaker Lane sticks to weekday charges on Saturdays while Cornmill and Darby Drive both charge £1.00, though there’s inconsistency there too with Darby Drive giving two hours free.
It was suggested that all three car parks offer one hour free parking on weekdays and Saturdays, an idea which seems reasonable.
I discourage car use and would rather see as many people as possible using public transport. However, we’ve got to be a bit pragmatic: with the current state of our bus services, and our entrenched car culture, that’s a long-term ideal.
Waltham Abbey needs more custom now!
It was mentioned that there can be as little time as six minutes to take care of loading/unloading, which clearly isn’t feasible. Transgressions lead to fines, which are the last thing small businesses need. A 30 minute or an hour permit for loading and unloading would be a great help to our small businesses and cost the council little.
My own businesses is run from a laptop at home so I was staggered to learn that our Town Centre businesses aren’t provided with recycling collection and have to organise their own. Some of the businesses represented at the meeting agreed to look at pooling their resources but isn’t this something that should be provided as part of the services business rates cover?
There was concern that the current supermarket chains in Waltham Abbey could be impeding the growth of small, independent businesses through:
- land banking – holding onto empty property while it increases in value rather than letting it/selling it on
- exclusivity agreements – preventing small businesses from selling lines which are already available in the supermarket
- excessive influence on planning decisions
All of these concerns were raised by individuals in the meeting and haven’t been verified. I’ve searched for references to exclusivity agreements in Waltham Abbey, and Epping Forest, but haven’t been able to find anything.
Having said that, such information could be hidden behind commercial confidentiality arrangements. I’m going to get back in touch with one business which raised a specific example of being hampered by a supermarket’s exclusivity agreement.
Should we try to get a Next, Superdrug et al into Sun Street? Personally I’m opposed to this. There are good arguments in favour, mainly that they’d bring more footfall to our town centre, but I’d rather see us build a collection of genuinely unique businesses which become a destination in themselves.
I mentioned Brighton’s The Lanes as an example of this but was, quite rightly, shot down by somebody who pointed out that The Lanes has a high street of chain stores a five-minute walk away. Fair cop!
However, it was also pointed out that we’d be unlikely to attract chains as we don’t currently have the infrastructure, or footfall, to be attractive to them. Also there’s the potential for further exclusivity agreements – would a chain impose limitations on independents competing?
Making more of Sun Street
It was noted from the outset that Keep It Local Waltham Abbey (KILWA) have been instrumental in bringing a lot of trade into the town and building the profile of local businesses. Their regular traders’ fetes and other events bring an atmosphere to Waltham Abbey town centre that’s otherwise largely missing.
For me that’s one of the most important points. The pedestrianised Sun Street is a really nice space which has massively underused potential.
Individual events can bring in a lot of people but we need more sustained business. These are a few ideas of mine to make Sun Street more of a general destination and community hub:
- Flower beds & community gardening: put some flower beds down Sun Street and invite local schools to get involved in maintaining them. Maybe even have a community veg garden across the flower beds? If it can work on train station platforms it can work on Sun Street!
- Entertainment – KILWA regularly have a stage in the market square. Why not have entertainment every Saturday? Make the market square a destination! I’m sure the square’s pubs would be appreciative. And why not have performers down at the Epping Forest District Museum end?
- Al fresco! – pub and cafe tables can be a pain on roadside footpaths but Sun Street has a lot of space. How about allowing, and encouraging, our cafes and pubs to use more of the pedestrianised area?
I’ve got a vision for Sun Street where, if you were to start at the market square end and walk towards Tesco, there would be nothing you’d need to buy at Tesco that you couldn’t buy on the way there from one of our local businesses.
That’s obviously not going to happen but I think it’s a good ambition to work towards.
I’d also like to see Waltham Abbey Town Centre being a destination of itself, not just for the historical connections but also because it’s a nice place to be with interesting things to do, all year round. I think that’s more achievable.
I’m sorry to have focussed on Sun Street and largely ignored Church Street and Highbridge Street. As they’re well used roads the options for making them more of a public space are somewhat limited. Personally I’d like to see the church car park turned into a mini-market and/or entertainment space but that would have a massive impact on Highbridge Road’s businesses and churchgoers so it’s not something I’d propose.
A couple of other thoughts include:
- Using bus tickets as money off vouchers, which local traders could redeem from the Town Council. That could encourage public transport use and, by extension, footfall to the town centre but I’d guess it would be an administrative nightmare.
- As proposed by Lisa Gates, a survey of what people want from Waltham Abbey Town centre!
The next meeting is on Wednesday 3rd February, 18.00 – 19.00, upstairs at The Rare Cow in Waltham Abbey.