Guardians of a town’s heritage

THE proposed £60million redevelopment of Letchworth GC town centre has caused controversy in the town, with two groups of traders launching their own surveys to gauge public opinion on the subject. The Comet s HANNAH GRAY put the traders fears and other

THE proposed £60million redevelopment of Letchworth GC town centre has caused controversy in the town, with two groups of traders launching their own surveys to gauge public opinion on the subject. The Comet's HANNAH GRAY put the traders' fears and other issues to Stuart Kenny, director general of the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, and its marketing director, Alan Howard.

Can we see the results to the Heritage Foundation's consultation into the proposals?

SK: I am afraid not. The response to our public consultation was correspondence between members of the public and the Foundation.

As such, it would be quite wrong of us to make it available to third parties.

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What do you think about the results of the survey published this week? The organisers seem to be suggesting overwhelmingly that people are against pulling down the Arena. And also the Cox's survey, which they say comes out in support of them?

AH: We understand the Cox's survey is on-going and will continue until July 29, so it would be inappropriate to comment on it at this stage.

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The other survey came in on Tuesday morning so we're still looking at it.

However, our fundamental concern is that it only captures responses from customers of the participating stores, people who, presumably, went into one of the 14 shops and were encouraged to complete the questionnaire. This gives it an in-built bias, which is not representative of broader public opinion. The primary goal of our public consultation was to invite views and comments on the proposals our expert teams had drawn up. Unlike our consultations, the questions in this survey are presented very much as a 'vote' in favour or against those proposals. There are some questions that lead the respondent to a particular response. The 'leading' and 'emotive' nature of these questions, added to the partiality of the survey, leads us to believe that this is very much a petition by questionnaire.

Are you disappointed that the Heritage Foundation's consultation only received 438 replies, given that both of the traders' surveys have received much more feedback?

SK: No. You have to appreciate that the three surveys are quite different. Our consultation was professionally prepared, with no leading questions.

It went to every home and business in the garden city. Indeed, through press ads to people elsewhere in Comet country.

It is also widely recognised that people who are against a proposition are more likely to make their views known than people who are for it, and yet, we still received overall support for our proposals.

On reflection, do you think it was wise to write from Scotland that you 'look forward to submitting the necessary planning applications and associated requests to NHDC for Compulsory Purchase Orders not too long after my return from God's own country'?

SK: I was merely stating the obvious. I am hugely enthusiastic about our proposals, which were approved by our board of management following extensive public consultation and have the support of the Town Centre Partnership and many other key organisations in this town.

Detailed plans are being drawn up and I do look forward to submitting planning applications and requests for CPOs to NHDC because I am 100 per cent convinced through extensive, independent market research that what we propose is what is desperately needed in order to sustain our town centre. Let's get on with it!

Of course businesses affected directly have concerns, but CPO is a fair process these days with the compensation reflecting the market value of the property interest and then, quite separate, disturbance payments.

Why is the foundation so set on pulling down the Arena?

SK: The Arena/Broadway/Eastcheap buildings are a visual carbuncle in an otherwise massively improved town centre - Morrisons, NHC, cinema, Nexus, the Arcade etc. I also understand they were pretty poorly constructed.

Secondly, we need that prime space between Morrisons and Garden Square to create the size of retail units which are demanded by the types of retailers that our core and secondary catchment area customers want to shop in.

What do you say to the independent retailers who are concerned that they will be pushed out of Letchworth GC?

SK: They will not be. As mentioned already, we are working with them to retain them, not desert them.

We look towards bringing in more speciality retail. Letchworth GC town centre is going to be a vibrant mix of national multiples and specialist shops.

Why have you yet to give retailers a figure for the compensation they will receive for moving - be it temporarily or permanently - out of the Arena? When will you be able to give them a figure?

SK: It would be premature to have done so. The district council has yet to agree to promote the CPOs and the compensation is determined under CPO rules. Of course, individual retailers will have different compensation, depending on the length and terms of their lease.

However, as said previously, we are working closely with the businesses concerned.

If your planning application is turned down by NHDC, will you appeal this?

SK: It is premature to take a view on that. However, I have made it crystal clear from day one - the press conference launching our proposals and the meetings with the businesses affected - that our proposals cannot go ahead in the absence of necessary planning permissions and CPOs by NHDC.

When will some definite plans be available for the public to see?

SK: When we submit the planning applications - probably about October/November.

An immense amount of work is going on to translate our outline proposals into detailed plans, taking account of the very many helpful suggestions/comments made to us during our extensive public consultation.

Why is the Foundation so keen for Letchworth to compete with Stevenage and Milton Keynes when its appeal has always been based on independent retailers rather than huge chains?

SK: Our independent market research clearly identified our core and secondary catchment areas, and profiled, in detail, the people who live in them, and their shopping/spending patterns.

The research concluded that, at present, Letchworth GC town centre is significantly under-performing in meeting the needs of a significant proportion of its core and secondary catchment area customers.

To meet their needs we need more, quality national multiples, but, I stress, they need to sit alongside our existing and new speciality retailers.

Can you understand why some of the independent retailers are afraid? For example people in the Arena like the Cox's are going to have to be relocated. Clearly they've got used to that location and are afraid they will move and lose trade and it might never pick up again.

SK: Clearly every business is different. This came through at some of the meetings I had. I remember one such occasion when the clear message from the Cox's was they're doing well and everything is fine. Another retailer said 'it's all very well for you, it may be OK, there may be good money in fish and chips but we're not doing well' and that retailer got a fair old round of applause.

I certainly understand their concerns and their reticence but we have got to look at the bigger picture about the whole of Letchworth town centre, the whole of Letchworth. There's no point in half a dozen shops doing well and the rest of the town centre being empty.

Does it concern you that two groups of traders feel so strongly about the redevelopment and about your consultation they have carried out their own surveys?

SK: We can understand their concerns because human instinct very often is to retain the status quo if you possibly can. Change is always hugely difficult for people, so we understand it.

Given that you want to improve the retail experience in Letchworth GC, why is there so much emphasis on building flats in the town centre?

SK: For two reasons. Firstly, the more people that live in the town centre, the more vibrant it is for a longer period of time. What's happened over the last decade is that town centres in this country have changed hugely from being purely retail environments to being a much broader environment and certainly these days you need people living in a town centre to add that vibrancy to it.

Secondly, we have said from day one that we will not go ahead with these proposals on the two development sites unless we have the necessary agreement from my board to submit the planning applications.

Then we will need the consent of the district council and that will need the consent of the CPOs. By that time, we will need to be satisfied that the schemes are financially viable and that includes getting pre-lets on some key retail unit. One of the means of making the schemes viable without ending up creating circumstances where you're charging silly rents is to put some residential on it. Residential creates value and works well with the retail.

Does it worry you the amount of power and influence the Foundation has in the town without the accountability of being elected? Do you think you have too much power without accountability?

SK: No, I don't think so. We've got six governors who are elected directly from the community every five years. We've got 10 governors then who are nominated by clubs and societies or the local authorities - one each from Hertfordshire County Council and North Herts District Council and the others from clubs and societies whose interests mirror our charitable objects.

Finally and therefore in the minority - they must always be in the minority - 14 'general governors' who are appointed by board of management, who themselves are appointed by the governors, who are there because of specific expertise in the areas we operate in.

How do you think the Foundation is perceived by the people of Letchworth GC?

SK: A total mix. Some think we're wonderful, some think we're Big Brother. Some remain totally confused about what we are and who we are compared with the local authorities.

Stuart, how do you feel you personally are perceived by the people of Letchworth GC?

SK: One person's 'arrogant' - I've been described as arrogant - is someone else's 'strong leader'. I'm most certainly a very upfront leader. I know where I'm going, I know where the Foundation is going and my job is to get it there. That, from time to time, will make me unpopular. But of course in such an organisation and such a town, strong leadership is actually needed. Anything less and much less is achieved.

Does it worry you if you are not very well perceived by the people of Letchworth GC?

SK: Anyone in this job has got to have skin like a rhinoceros and I probably fulfil that criteria. My job is to do what is best for the Heritage Foundation and hence what is best for the people of Letchworth GC.

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