Making the most of Waltham Abbey’s town centre.

IMG_20151231_114447037_HDRAt 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:

Parking

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!

Unloading

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.

Recycling/refuse

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?

Supermarkets

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.

Chains

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.

9 thoughts on “Making the most of Waltham Abbey’s town centre.”

  1. I like most of your proposals, especially getting the children involved with the gardening bringing some colour to the street and to create a pretty and unique place to visit , giving that feel of being different from the high street, is what I think we need to do , like you say about Brighton , people are drawn there because of the little unique shops , there can be lots of opportunities for small businesses as we all know we can provide on line as well as a base for clients to come to visit , but I do also think maybe , a well known retail shop is needed that would be astethic to the street , but what ever is decided people who may not agree with certain ideas , we are all in agreement that somethings need to change , for the survivel of small shops and the local street.

    1. Hi. Thanks for commenting.

      Lisa and I just had a meeting with Kathryn Richmond, the Town Clerk, to go over a few of the points from the meeting.

      It looks like the flower beds could be problematic for a few reasons but it’s still worth looking into.

      The Town Council do much more than I think a lot of people realise but they’re hampered by authority for things resting at different levels, it District and County councils.

      It was a very productive meeting though and we’ve lots of stuff to take to the meeting on the 3rd.

  2. Hi Dave
    Some very interesting ideas coming from this group.

    May I invite Cllr. Helen Kane as Mayor of Waltham Abbey and County Councillor Ricki Gadsby along to your next meeting?

    Many of the issues raised have been addressed in the past by the Waltham Abbey Town Partnership as well as the Town & District councillors and it will I believe, prove very useful to your meeting to share the many years of experience in trying to bring a new face to Sun Street and Waltham Abbey in general.

    Cllr. Sam Kane

    1. Hi Sam,

      We’re happy to invite Cllrs Kane and Gadsby along. We got a lot of background and historical info from our meeting with Kathryn Richmond yesterday, which was very helpful.

  3. I think Saturday is a good day to entice people to come to the town centre, however when you see the market stalls it really does put people off . The traders aren’t doing themselves any favours. The displays are very dull and there is no imagination or thought put into them.

    I was at Saffron walden market last year and the main square had a fruit and veg stall which was out of this world! If you want people to use the market it has to look good , at the moment it looks like you’ve stepped back into the 70’s and not in a good way. It looks like the clothes stalls could do with a shake up as well . This could be a really nice creative place and it wouldn’t really cost anything just some imagination . Cheese , bread, pies, and locally grown produce. I love Waltham abbey and would like to see a change.

    1. Hi Sean, thanks for commenting.

      When you say it wouldn’t really cost much money to get it going with cheese, bread, pies and local produce have you got any ideas for going about that?

      We’ve a good veg stall in the market, but we’ve also got a good Organic Veg shop on Sun Street which needs much more business.

      I agree that the town market isn’t particularly appealing but there’s not a lot of money around to make it better.

      I don’t know but I’d be surprised if our market traders have much spare cash to spruce their stalls up a bit. I’m pretty sure (though stand to be corrected!) that the Town Council doesn’t.

      1. Hi David,
        sorry for the late reply. My vision is to walk through the market in the town square and see traders with lovely displays that make you want to buy something. The way it is at the moment is very depressing. When I said it wouldn’t cost a lot , I meant traders should be told to smarten up their stalls and maybe whoever runs the market should look for some new traders and change it up every week . There are traders out there it just takes someone to find them . Keep it local has a MASSIVE following and they could help you advertise as well as Facebook and Twitter. Whoever has the job of running the market should really pull their socks up. Waltham abbey has so much potential, I know there are plans for the market square, but if the traders don’t pull their socks up there’s no point in spending the money on it.

        1. Hi Sean,

          I share your vision!

          The thing is, I’m not sure how you can make a pet food stall, a clothing stall, a veg stall, a cake stall, a bric-a-brac stall etc more inviting.

          Ultimately these are market stalls which low margins and have other places to be on other days. To an extent we should be grateful that they’re part of our market.

          An exception to the drabness is the noodle bar which looks (and smells!) great but I’d guess they get a lot of lunchtime specific trade from local businesses. It takes business away from our cafes but we don’t have a noodle bar on Sun Street. Maybe Phoenix or The Majic Wok should have a stall there instead?

          I’m not sure how much trade the other stalls get.

          There’s conflict over how to use the market square: there was a proposal for a bandstand, which ultimately fell to a lack of funding, and there’s a business which wants the pedestrianised area to be turned over to car parking.

          Needless to say I’d rather see the pedestrianised area being used for creativity rather than parking.

          Better buses would help!

          It’s complicated and if there were easy answers they’d be being used.

          The next Waltham Abbey Town Focus Meeting, organised by Lisa Gates, is upstairs at The Rare Cow on Thursday 8th March:

          https://www.facebook.com/events/801834966628253/

          It’s worth keeping an eye on the Waltham Abbey Town Partnership. The new Chair, Paul Violet, is very proactive and wants to get things moving.

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