The Camberley Society held a meeting in the borough council offices on Wednesday evening. The advance publicity said “The key topics are: the proposed town centre, High Street and station redevelopments, public transport including the rail service and new ideas for putting Camberley on the map.” The meeting was introduced as being an “Opportunity for the council to say what’s happening, and for residents to ask questions.”
As promised, this is the Eye’s view of the proceedings.
First, a warning. The meeting lasted an hour and a half. In reducing what was said to a just-about-manageable length here, some fairly brutal editing was needed. Our apologies to anyone who is unhappy with the result. If you want to listen to a full recording of the meeting, you can find it here: http://goo.gl/PdyR54
The principal speaker was the council’s Chief Executive, Mrs Karen Whelan. For the first twenty minutes she provided some general background. She explained that it can be difficult to tell residents exactly what’s going on and to convince the community that the council is working hard. One reason for this is that the council isn’t in control of everything that it wants to achieve. It is a major stakeholder in the town but it doesn’t own everything. Commercial confidentiality can also prevent openness.
Camberley has strengths and weaknesses. Overcoming the latter needs investment, effort and collective commitment from key stakeholders. The good news is that the current councillors have reaffirmed that the council should borrow and invest in building and sustaining the town. This gives the council officers a clear direction and is already making a difference.
The first part of the presentation ended by Mrs Whelan saying that she and the council were as frustrated as anyone about the sometimes slow progress.
The remainder of the presentation outlined ten projects intended to improve the town. From the Eye’s point of view, this wasn’t always a very useful twenty minutes. The limited time spent on each project meant that none was covered in depth. Nor was it possible to ask detailed questions (or, indeed, any questions) during the talk. So, even obvious topical issues like the significance of BHS’s impending liquidation on the council – see later – were never raised. So, though a very positive picture was painted, it has to be accepted on trust that there’s substance under the paint.
The ten projects are:
1 – 3. The London Road Block (originally defined as the area between Park Street and the High Street south of the A30. The key message here was that the Eye’s long-standing doubt about the viability of the previously-planned redevelopment of much of this area as retail space was justified. The concept has now been replaced by a mixed-use scheme with 1. parking facilities, 2. some retail, and 3. some residential accommodation. In addition, improvements in the A30 are planned to make the approach to the town more appealing.
4. Parts of the town are tired. The council has therefore borrowed around £8 million to upgrade Ashwood House, retaining retail premises at ground level, but converting the upper office space into housing. It’s hoped that this will kick-start the surrounding area, and a planning application is expected this autumn. (It’s ironic that the largest occupier of this building is BHS – presumably no further income will be available from that source.)
5. As we all know, the Mall is upgrading its existing covered premises.
6. Station redevelopment. Network Rail has been urged to give Camberley station priority in its redevelopment programme.
7. Land east of Knoll Road. The theatre is a major Camberley asset. The audience was urged to use it fully, to justify its continued existence. New seats and booking system are on the way.
8. Upgrading the town’s “environment”. Aims include improving Princess Way, Pembroke Broadway and central/southern High Street. (There is no current scheme for the north of the High Street; this awaits a clearer definition of what will happen to the London Road Block.). A review of town-centre signage has been carried out (Hurrah! But what will the Eye write about if current signage nonsenses are eliminated??). A public consultation will be carried out once funding has been confirmed for highway/transport improvements. The possibility of grant-funding shopfront improvements is being investigated.
9. Transport improvements. These include upgrading the ‘Meadows Gyratory’ (the ‘Meadows Roundabout’) – a £5 million project, and improving/expanding bus services in Yorktown and Watchmoor Park.
Extensive lobbying has been carried out with bidders for our local rail franchise to encourage them to incorporate the costs of improving our service in their tenders. The Department of Transport has been urged to require such costs to be included in the tender documents. (More of this will be included in a separate Eye item as soon as possible.)
The Arup report evaluating the possible improvement of our rail service is likely to be made available publicly soon (July?).
Rail improvements are very much subject to the availability of government funding.
10. Developing a Management Strategy for the town centre. This apparently dry aim is actually quite exciting and important. In a nutshell, it’s to improve the town’s ‘branding’, so that the right investors, tenants and businesses are attracted to the town.
In summary, Karen Whelan reiterated that the council was very much dependent on others to make improvements. It had to work with them to bring change about. She also urged that everyone should use every opportunity to promote the town. ‘Sell what’s lovely’. Where there were shortcomings, these should be attended to under the radar.
The final session was Qs and As. In brief:
– What would the A30 trees be like? A – not known yet, but we should celebrate Camberley’s ‘green-ness’.
– What was the future of the Bear and the proposed adjacent public square? A – i) the future of the Bear was a planning matter to be decided by councillors. ii) There was no intention to abandon the idea of enhancing the public realm. But it hadn’t yet been decided whether one large square or several smaller areas would be best.
– What input had the council’s made to the Invitation to Tender for the railway franchise renewal? A – the council had energetically lobbied everyone who could influence the process. (As mentioned earlier, this will be the subject of a further Eye item in the near future.
– (Questions raised by the Eye). Given the lack of progress on the ground for the last fifteen years as far as the London Road Block and High Street pedestrianisation were concerned, what was the probability that improvements would be carried out during the Eye’s lifetime? Specifically, when would the Allders building be demolished, when would the A30 frontage be demolished or restored? When would we see some form of town square. A – i) the problem with the London Road Block was that it wasn’t owned by the council. ii) not everyone, particularly the retailers, was in favour of pedestrianising the High Street. To which the Eye responded that a survey some years ago showed that most were, and that High Streets were in decline nationally compared to retail parks and shopping centres. A new approach was needed.
– A member of the public supported the need for pedestrianisation, and asked whether Camberley might have a covered play area. A – essentially the situation depended on money being available.
– The link between the RMA and the town was barely visible – could it be strengthened? A. the link had been strengthened in recent years, and the Freedom of the Borough had been granted to the army. It was hoped that the RMA site could be made more available to local people, but security concerns would have to be overcome. It very much depended on the will of the commandant.
– What was the strategy for encouraging businesses here, and what are the target business sectors? A – this question wasn’t really answered. But it was pointed out that a major role of Surrey Heath was to provide industrial floorspace in the Blackwater Valley area. Protecting this role was more important than protecting office space.
– What provision is there for helping small businesses? The closure of Frenchies was mentioned. A – the council provides start-up help, though ultimately businesses are responsible for their own management. It was surprising that Frenchies apparently didn’t ask for help.
It was pointed out that the long uncertainty over the future of the London Road frontage was casting a planning blight over the businesses still there. (This met with sympathy from the audience.)
– What will be the population in future, what housing is needed, and what are the costs of the ten projects? A – Housing needs, ultimately, are defined by the government. What really matters is whether funding will be available. The council has worked to ensure that Camberley is included in the Local Enterprise Partnership’s economic plan, so that funding in principle can be available to the town.
The meeting ended with coffee and biscuits!