The last two weeks have seen Spalding shopkeepers raise serious concerns about the commitment of our council to our town centre.
Despite an unnamed South Holland District Council spokesman being quoted in the press saying: “We are committed to ensuring Spalding town centre is a vibrant retail location and remains the primary retail destination for Spalding,” there has been no other voice, other than the chairman of planning committee Roger Gambba-Jones, seeking to justify his support for Springfields and the policy of the council not to enforce restrictions, imposed when planning permission was granted and then lecturing business to take the initiative.
This is the same Mr Gambba-Jones that at the last town forum meeting refused to participate in a proposed meeting of town councillors with businesses about action for the town centre.
As a former chairman of the traders association, I can tell Mr Gambba-Jones that we have been trying to take the initiative for some time. Over the last 18 months, we have held meetings with our MP, John Hayes, had several meetings with council deputy leader Nick Worth, met with other councillors and council officials, met with the local police inspector, written on more than one occasion to council leader Lord Porter and to chief executive Anna Graves, written to most Spalding town councillors, invited council officers and officials to our traders meetings, and most recently made a lengthy presentation at the Spalding Town Forum. And what has this been able to achieve? To date very little other than agreement from most on what we are saying and an acceptance that things needs to be done to prevent our town going into decline.
We want to talk about parking, about policing, about the appearance of our town, about getting a bus into our market place, about publicity amongst other things.
We want to discuss things that could bring footfall into our town centre, about making use of the market place for events and activities on non-market days.
Some traders have even questioned whether pedestrianisation has been detrimental to our town centre.
We ask why cannot the council invest in the market, why cannot Spalding have street auctions or car boots or more specialist markets on current market or non-market days? It has been really frustrating that we have positive conversations with people and then there are reasons given later for not being able to change anything.
We could ask groups such as Rotary, Round Table and others to help organise day-time events for the town centre, keeping the profits for their causes, but would this attract people to our town?
Would some of our local marketing and event organising companies offer their support to co-ordinate and publicise such events? Could Highways actually allow roadside advertising to promote events that is so regular in South Kesteven but not in South Holland when both are Lincolnshire Highways?
Town shopkeepers want to know what the council is doing to try to encourage new business into our town centre. Traders acknowledge that Spalding would benefit from an influx of new, different and leading stores into our town centre and believe the council should be trying to attract such businesses by creating the retail conditions and environment to enable this to happen.
While Spalding stagnates, new retailers are opening at Springfields. There is an appetite to come to Spalding for these retailers but not into our town centre and traders would like the council to be actively seeking the investment into the town centre by such retailers which would give a positive boost to the town centre.
And back to Mr Gambba-Jones, please come to a traders meeting and explain the local plan, what it means to us and why Spalding is supposed to have “insufficient future retail capacity” and more importantly what can be done to remedy that and, by the way, please answer when and who decided not to enforce the Springfields planning conditions.
Traders will now formally ask to meet with the council to try to agree on action to ensure the town centre does remain the primary retail destination for Spalding.
Action not words is what is now required. Most traders are united in agreement that footfall in the town centre has declined over recent years. Now is the time for some plans to reverse this trend and we need to be involved with and have the support of our council to help this be achieved.
We all need to understand the reasons for this at a time Spalding and the surrounding towns and villages are growing and forecast to grow further and seek to address these reasons.
Too many times decisions are made that affect businesses without the involvement and input of businesses who are affected by these decisions and policies.
The traders would like to ask all our town centre councillors to put on record to the press their commitment and support to Spalding town centre and this to be backed by our MP and, very importantly, the leaders of SHDC.
As they have not yet come out publicly on this, the traders will write individually to local councillors and others asking for their commitment to our town and their help to ensure that this time there will be some positive action and some quick wins.
Traders are also asking if a reason why there seems a lack of direction and action in our town centre is because of shared services of the council with Breckland and because of this there is not the affinity of many senior council officials with our town, with some of the key posts held by people based in Breckland?
There are so many good, hardworking, genuine people owning and running businesses in our town that are feeling let down by our elected councillors. They are trying to earn a living and are providing employment.
Many have and continue to invest in their businesses but feel incredibly let down when our public sector seems to be stacking the cards against them.
Letters in the last few weeks suggest Holbeach too feels it is being let down by the council as well. Our businesses know our customers vote with their feet if we do not offer what they want and for some this is happening. We think that Spalding has to come together with the council, other public agencies, Lincolnshire County Council, Highways, Police and the town centre businesses and traders with a deliverable plan and the mandate and commitment to make it happen.