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Sudbury – A Town For The Future?

June 15, 2020 1:02 PM
By Councillor David Busby

ppde (By Tr00st This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)With the decision not to proceed with the hotel and restaurant at the Belle Vue swimming pool site Liberal Democrat councillor David Busby has been looking at what alternatives there are for Sudbury in a post Covid world. His report is below. If you have any comments or suggestions you want to make to David he would be happy to hear from you. Please contact him at david.busby@babergh.gov.uk

Introduction


Babergh District Council, as part of their regeneration plans for Sudbury, have been negotiating with Premier Inns to build a hotel and a restaurant on the old Belle Vue swimming pool site. By investing some £6million + of capital on the project the council is hoping to receive £250,000 of rental for the next 30 years. The rental income would help provide much needed funds for the beleaguered general account. The two issues covered by this paper are whether putting a hotel and restaurant on the edge of the park is the best use of the space for Sudbury and whether the council should be investing in commercial property given the edict from the Government.

Background


There has been much talk about the future (or lack of) for our town centres. The writing seemed to be on the wall even before CoVid19 hit. Their strength relied upon heavy footfall which supported large, quality high street brands plus a tapestry of independent stores. Covid19 has probably brought forward the demise of many smaller shops, restaurants, public houses and the closure of many of the chain stores.
Belle Vue, Borehamgate and Hamilton Road provide the eastern gateway to Sudbury and were already run down before the onset of the lock-down. It is an important part of the town leading to the market square to the west and the leisure centre, railway station and car parks to the south. The depressed state of town centre retail provides us with an opportunity to be a bit more creative in our thinking. The area certainly needs something more substantial than a lick of paint and a few tubs of plants. Fortunately, a number of people have been giving this problem plenty of thought which we would be wise to draw on.

The Research


High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 - Report Summary


In February 2019 the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee presented its findings after six months of fact finding and discussion. An enormous change has taken place in retail in recent years - online shopping. Against the backdrop of store closures, persistently empty shops and declining footfall the committee made a set of recommendations to Government, local government, local communities, retailers and landlords, to be acted on now. They felt that unless this urgent action was taken, there would be further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction which may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether. An intervention leading to large-scale structural change was needed.


Their findings and recommendations are summarised below:


To achieve the large-scale structural change needed will require an intervention led by the local authority, using all its powers and backed by cross-sector collaboration. However, given the financial pressure faced by local authorities, central government funding will be needed for this as well as significant private sector investment. Councils should be actively encouraged to develop town centre master plans and visionary strategies and then use their powers positively to renew their town centres. These must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years' time and beyond.
With online shopping only set to grow, high street retail needs to carve out a separate role, focusing on providing "experience" and "convenience". Retailers should make an asset of their physical retail space and their staff by creating opportunities to interact with customers that cannot be found online. Well-stocked with interesting products, personal shopping services, advice and consultations, using social media and investing in staff training and the store itself with friendly opening hours are base requirements.


Landlords are often the least visible stakeholders in high streets and town centres but are among the most important. Disparate property ownership and lack of landlord engagement are key barriers to high street and town centre transformation and high rents are affecting retailers' profitability. Landlords need to recognise that the retail property market has changed and should take an active approach, providing their tenants with good quality properties on a flexible basis and investing in re-configuring properties.


Wiltshire Council said that what brings people into towns is "mainly employment, cinemas, parks, libraries, events, festivals, leisure activities and other services". These activities and community interaction need a central place in which it can happen - "public spaces for gathering and socialising, and parks and green spaces for recreation and wellbeing".


This is evidenced in Stockton-on-Tees where the high street has been redesigned to create a flexible 'amphitheatre-style' performance space with sound and lighting for staging events but which also serves as a central focal and meeting point for people to gather or relax. Altrincham, winner of the 2018 Great British High Street 'town centre' award, has also invested in the public realm with landscaping, street furniture and planting.
In conclusion the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee was convinced that high streets and town centres will not only survive, but thrive, in 2030 if they become activity-based, community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities. Green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services must combine with housing to create a space that is the "intersection of human life and activity" based primarily on social interactions rather than financial transactions. A mix that best suits the areas specific characteristics, local strengths, culture and heritage. Fundamentally, community, well being and a 'positive vibe' must be at the heart of all high streets and town centres in 2030 in order to attract footfall.


The Human Scale - Jan Gehl


Jan Gehl is the highly distinguished architect (with very grounded credentials) behind many city overhauls such as Copenhagen and Melbourne - transforming them from congested spots to global destination cities. He states that one of the most important elements in the construction of habitats for humanity is what he calls the human scale - the construction of structures and habitats with humans at the centre of the narrative. Now, whilst this may seem like a given, Gehl argues that modernist (post 1960) architecture and town planning has in fact, eliminated the human scale from the equation in its bid to build for the modern 'man'.


If we look at cities before 1960, they were built in small installments - typically around two building blocks, the street (movement of the feet) and the square (movement of the eye). With the expansion of the world and the compatibility between mass production and modernism, the way in which people moved on streets and within squares was forgotten.
What followed was a series of construction projects that built taller and taller buildings as technology allowed. Urban space was valued on market rental and ignored the human. The new street scene lacked essential functionality at the street level. The role of the car in society grew and vehicles filled the void creating a prioritization of vehicle transport over people and pedestrians. Gehl had other plans for his city planning endeavours however.


Today, the town planning policies of numerous successful cities are increasingly concerned with placing pedestrians at the centre of the architectural narrative. What is needed, according to Gehl, is a return to places where people can meet, where the pace of life is slower through creating livable, sustainable space for walking and cycling. This, he argues, creates intimacy and interaction; it creates a human scale that places people at the epicentre of the city and the life around it.


The Happy City - Charles Montgomery


In his keynote speech at the Academy of Urbanism Congress, Charles Montgomery criticised status quo city planning where the preponderance of focus is on monetary concerns. He conducted an experiment which showed that people are most engaged and happy in the jumbled old tenement blocks with small shop frontages and a diverse range of activities. In contrast, big blocks with giant superstores and long stretches of walls of glass and brick provided little engagement.


Montgomery's presentation began with a story about an experiment boldly named "Love Night"- in a run-down gritty lot in New York City. Could he build an environment that builds trust and conviviality? His presented devices for trust building included hot chocolate, artistic installations that invited (or more often coerced) strangers into unsolicited social interaction, and clothing that changed colour in response to the heat of human touch. Montgomery offered a concise justification for his seemingly bizarre human experiment - the secret compound, oxytocin.


Oxytocin, states Montgomery, is the chemical that mothers are flooded with post-birth to override feelings of agony with those of trust and happiness. Yet oxytocin is also an everyday drug. We receive a small dose of it every time we develop feelings of trust with a stranger and it is exactly this administering of happiness through socio-physical chemistry that Montgomery was hoping to reproduce in his urban laboratory.
Montgomery reminds us that meeting people on the street will also simply make us happier in an everyday sort of way. His experimental findings showed that happy people will vote more compassionately for urban policy with a greater awareness for equality and sustainability. Participants were asked if they would support raising the minimum wage at the start of the experiment and at the end. At the start, 80% of participants replied 'no' to raising the minimum wage. After the social interaction 90% answered 'yes'.


Montgomery offers a cascade of evidence to justify his belief in social ties - socially connected individuals are more productive, less likely to check into hospital, live up to 15 years longer, and - of course - report themselves to be happier.


Montgomery offers boundless hope for a happy city that is powered by small everyday pleasures of urban living. We might better learn to appreciate the small moments of interaction and enjoyment. He also warns that as house sizes become smaller, public spaces will play an even bigger role in society.


The role of green space in cities - CBRE


In successful towns and cities green space is recognised as a way to not only enhance the attractiveness of the city but also increase the value of real estate. Commercial pressures tempt planners to use all available land for development but, increasingly, green space is considered to be key to future city living by helping to create an urban scape where regeneration respects and fulfils human needs.
Green space improves the image of cities by offering a destination for human interaction and providing versatility for events. It establishes a character of a place for fun, recreation and meeting, not just living and working. Over a six-year period (2010 to 2016) visits to green space increased by 25%.


The walkable City - Jeff Speck


How do we encourage people to leave their cars at home? Towns should be compact and a diverse mixture of houses, work, shopping entertainment and schools. Creating sprawl through huge housing estates, employment parks and out-of-town retail centres is the wrong way to proceed.


There should be a reason to walk, a balance of uses. The space should be safe in reality and perception, be interesting with signs of humanity and be comfortable in terms of the space available and its orientation.
Building new roads increases journey volumes, makes traffic worse and creates an environment that is less attractive to walk in. Buses should be a viable option to the car and dedicated cycle lanes will increase bicycle use. The bicycle population is a function of the bicycle infrastructure - build it and they will use it.


Harlow - a local hidden gem


Harlow is a local new town that was successfully laid out by Sir Frederick Gibbard, heavily influenced by the garden city movement concept. The Master Plan was a design for the town as a whole to provide a framework for its development. In 1980 Sir Frederick wrote 'The Plan was concerned with three arts; Architecture, Road Design and Landscape Architecture. These three arts are fused to become town scenes or townscapes, the making of which is the art of Town Design.' While not immune from the hustle and bustle of modern living the urban layout and access to waterways and greenspace make Harlow a role model town that will become ever more popular post Covid-19.


DCN Study Tour to Roeselare - BDC John Ward Report Extracts


The 2013 Grimsey Review: An Alternative Future for the High Street was the first serious response to the lack of a coherent, detailed and workable high streets policy and government's failure to address the problems. This review caught the imagination of Roeselare and the city decided to embark on a programme of change and worked up a development plan to implement many of the review's recommendations.


The DCN, following a presentation by Bill Grimsey, decided to organise a study tour for interested Council Leaders and other Council representatives. Accompanied by Bill, the tour took place on 27th & 28th June 2019, with an intense programme of presentations and site visits arranged by the heads of housing, economics and agriculture at Roeselare city council.


Roeselare developed a regeneration strategy based around a few key principles of strong leadership, a long-term development plan, development of community hubs, use of technology, and clear measurements of success. They identified seven ambitions that they wanted the development plan to realise, backed up with 50 actions:


1. They have encouraged new business models, e.g. stores which have more than one offering under the same roof. An example is a women's fashion store with a bar and a micro gym.
2. They haven't just concentrated on the main squares and streets: side streets and alleys have also been revitalised.
3. They have provided pop-up space and financial assistance for start-up ventures.
4. Town squares are now public spaces, with reduced or eliminated parking.
5. But: a sensible parking strategy has been implemented: cars are not seen as the enemy.
6. The very successful re-purposing of the library into a knowledge centre, including pop-up space for micro businesses.
7. And last, but not least, the place was so clean!


Roeselare has had to overcome a lack of pride in the town. Stakeholder engagement was essential to bring the community along because of the dislike of change. It needs people who believe in the project - supporters with courage - to counteract negative views and the conflicting requirements of special interest groups. But they have done it. People are proud of the place again. Roeselare shows that towns can be repurposed and reinvented, and the things they have done are just as feasible here.


Sudbury


Sudbury is campus sized market town with incredible amenities and is London's gateway to Suffolk, also conveniently situated 45 minutes from Stansted Airport and Cambridge. Sudbury has many attractive features for visitors - not least its setting in ancient water meadows, which most visitors would never discover by driving through its poorly planned one-way system. The town dates back to the time of the Saxons and has a long heritage in the weaving and silk industries. Market Hill was laid out in the 14th century by Elizabeth de Burgh in the Italian piazza style (Siena) to provide a centre something that has been lost to car parking, congestion and a very poorly managed market full of vehicles, tripping hazards and lower quality spectrum product.


Sudbury is also well known for its natural beauty. Thomas Gainsborough was born here and the surrounding countryside inspired much of his work. His statue, in the market Square with St Peters Church, is the centerpiece of Sudbury. His birthplace is now open to the public and has been converted to a museum, art gallery and visitor attraction.


Sudbury itself has a traditional Suffolk mix of heritage architecture - combining Victorian terrace houses, Georgian manor houses and some spectacular medieval timber framed halls, and even the occasional building from the time of Queen Anne. Three fine medieval churches remain along with an impressive range of timber-framed cloth merchant's houses and three storey 19th C silk weavers' cottages. The Quay Theatre offers a variety of plays, films, music and comedy concerts throughout the year but is run down and is therefore in need of regeneration. Its finances will have been severely hit by Covid19.


"Belle Vue Park is a lovely spot for kicking back and watching the world go by and is conveniently located in the town centre. There are beautiful lawns and floral displays along with a collection of animals and some aviaries" - The Tourist Trail A Guide to Sudbury.

Application of research to Sudbury - Theo Bird


How do we make Sudbury a happy, walkable town that makes best use of its open green spaces and focuses on people not monetary returns? The Government committee's vision is for activity-based, community gathering places where retail is less predominant and where green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services combine with housing to create a space based on social and community interactions.
In particular we should not castrate Belle Vue Park from the town centre. It is therefore on this Cabinet's watch to consider the wisest planning opportunities for Sudbury to enable it to flourish over the next 30 years (particularly post Covid19). What businesses are Sudbury seeking to attract? What key drivers do we need to focus on to attract it?


In professions such as software, architecture and app development London offices are already disaggregating and becoming virtual due to the high costs of being there. This is set to become the new normal post Covid19.

For Sudbury, this suggests a trend towards professionals who require irregular access to London (or other European cities). Sudbury's affordable property prices (land price 1/10th of Cambridge), proximity to London, Cambridge and Stansted are the Sudbury hooks to attract the right developers for this market.


In addition, and not to be overlooked, is Sudbury's care home industry. Proximity to major centres but with lower overheads (property prices and affordability for key workers) are good drivers for this market and especially post Covid19 this sector is becoming front and centre of society's thinking. Both of these markets will be stimulated by quality urban break out space, parks and better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.


Babergh's speculative proposal to build a hotel and restaurant on a site next to the town's busiest junction is, according to a number of experts, at best ambitious and at worst ridiculous. The cheapest and wisest option is to redevelop the park creating a new pedestrian piazza to give the town a modern buzz. This would not only benefit residents and attract new visitors but also reinvigorate local tourists who currently avoid Sudbury town centre for anything other than essentials. An expanded Belle Vue Park and piazza will also regenerate the Borehamgate precinct by creating street facing commercial development opportunities on Great Eastern Road (currently an ugly eyesore of bins and haphazard parking which hotel visitors would look onto).


Surveys show about 40% of journeys in Sudbury are less than two km. This distance is the ideal distance for walking, cycling, and using public transport. To encourage this walkers and cyclists should be given a fairer share of space in the town with car parking and roadway space reallocated to cycle lanes and wider pavements. Charges for short-term car parking should be introduced with the surplus of funds used to enhance the bus services - this is standard in many other market towns across the country. If the visitor can't afford a small parking charge they are not going to contribute much to the local economy. If we can get the 40% out of their cars then we can make better use of the space allocated to the car.


Building a large hotel and restaurant in front of the park will isolate the park making it irrelevant. The resulting hundreds of extra car journeys into an already overloaded junction will cause greater congestion, amplify traffic noise in the town and block out light.


A bypass style hotel in the middle of Sudbury is also not a compelling reason to attract tourists to Sudbury. It may attract low spenders seeking a cheap bed for the night but this would hardly be a memorable visit (probably something they'd want to forget and are unlikely to return). Indeed, according to the leading commercial property agents consulted, if there was a market for a budget hotel in Sudbury it would already be there and in any case market forces should dictate these types of development rather than a council speculating


We have the opportunity to learn from many experts - just some of them featured above by Councilor Busby's extensive research - but their message is simple: if Sudbury is a nice place to be people will come (and the money will follow). The prize is not just in increasing visitor numbers but in improving the health and wellbeing of all Sudbury residents and reinvigorating the Sudbury economy by attracting new businesses whose needs are actually quite simple and would appreciate a well connected well laid out pedestrian, bicycle, mobility aid and family friendly campus sized market town close to London, Cambridge and Stansted. Expanding the park and bringing the green space into the town centre will enhance the surrounding area, making regeneration an easier exercise and make it a feature worth visiting - making Sudbury a town to remember.
How can Babergh achieve this economically and effectively?


Rather than take a risky position in the fragile and competitive market I believe it's important for Babergh to think about what it can do that others can't to attract 'the magic'. I have listed some ideas below to encourage discussion:


1. Sudbury's water meadows, both the Town Meadows and the surrounding privately owned water meadows with the Railway Walk are one of its key features, but hugely under celebrated. What if we sought UNESCO World Heritage status for the meadows? This would be a massive tourist hook locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
2. The area near the very run-down Quay Theatre, with its under-rated access to the River Stour for canoeists, is a unique attraction of the town and is well connected to our railway station. What if we worked with the River Stour Trust to showcase this - and possibly increase access to the river? This would be mainly for the local market, but the spot hire market should also be supported (Outdoor Hire Centre which rents boats from Ballingdon Bridge got 10,000 tourists onto the river in 2019 mainly through online bookings).
3. Market Hill needs much improved walking and cycling links to the train station, Belle Vue Park, the Borehamgate centre and the Quay Theatre. What if we invested in a crawl / walk / run program to improve this infrastructure?

Summary
If Sudbury requires additional hotel capacity it should be provided by a hotel chain out of the town centre on the Long Melford bypass for example. The area around Belle Vue park, Borehamgate and Hamilton Road should be used for residential purposes and to creatively increase the attraction of Sudbury as a market town. We should also take this opportunity to reduce the number of car journeys into the town centre.
Babergh should not be taking on risky investments but be using its influence and powers to endorse and promote Sudbury's USPs which by virtue will reinvigorate a town centre that is at risk of dying. Opportunities like this come round very rarely let's not waste it.

Please contact David if you have any comments or alternative suggestions on these proposals.He would love to hear from you. His e-mail is david.busby@babergh.gov.uk