Lib Dems claim Welwyn Garden City town centre is ‘stuck and unchanging’

PUBLISHED: 14:01 12 July 2020

Malcolm Cowan, Liberal Democrat group leader and a Peartree councillor, on the railway bridge. Picure: Malcolm Cowan

Malcolm Cowan, Liberal Democrat group leader and a Peartree councillor, on the railway bridge. Picure: Malcolm Cowan

Malcolm Cowan

Welwyn Hatfield Lib Dems fear the council is not doing enough to protect Welwyn Garden City’s town centre.

A map of the proposals for the Town Centre North site. Picture: WHBCA map of the proposals for the Town Centre North site. Picture: WHBC

Councillor Malcolm Cowan has raised concerns about the future of the town centre, saying it needs ‘reimagining’.

The Welwyn Hatfield Lib Dem group leader said: “While Hatfield is looking better after some significant investment, Welwyn Garden City seems stuck and unchanging.

“Everywhere, advice is that town centres need reimagining as being not just for shopping but also for leisure, entertainment, health and just meeting up with friends.

“We asked for a town centre czar at a council meeting a year ago, as Debenhams closed its doors. We were promised a new group would be set up to take this forward, but it still hasn’t had its first meeting. Since then we have had cCoronavirus, with its dramatic effect on shopping, as more sales switch to online. Will people return to shop in person, which can help relieve mental stress?

The Howard Centre. Picture: DANNY LOOThe Howard Centre. Picture: DANNY LOO

“We have even managed to obtain an offer of free consultancy advice from a retail industry leader but the council are yet to take up that offer – more months wasted.

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“Even a request for information, such as ‘have you joined the High Streets Task Force’ was met with ‘we’re too busy to answer’. There are plenty of well-trailed initiatives that could be underway – dividing closed units into micro-shops for startups – these would avoid business rates, and the Teenage Market, flourishing in Barnet, for example.”

However in response the council have said they are in fact members of the High Street Task Force and that they have invited the industry expert recommended to the meeting on July 17.

Cllr Cowan added: “The latest threat is the government saying shops can be converted to housing without planning permission – how are we going to resist that? Other towns up and down the country are moving forward by agreeing a vision and taking action. Our Council needs to do the same – and urgently.”

Cllr Tony Kingsbury, leader of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, said: “A huge amount of work is underway to forge a bright future for WGC town centre. We continue to do everything we can to lead efforts collaboratively – involving input from partners, industry experts and councillors from all parties – and it is a shame not to see any of this reflected in these comments.

“Supported by our successful bid for a £6m cash injection from government for Town Centre North, we’re driving investment in new town centre infrastructure, homes, and retail and leisure space, sharing early plans with the public in February.

“Our partners at the Business Improvement District (BID) continue to create new opportunities for people to visit the town. We had forecast a very different year, packed full of centenary celebrations, but instead have worked tirelessly to get WGC safely back in business.

“The town’s key partners – including major retailers, the BID, cross-party representatives from the Town Centre North Development Group, and others – will meet on July 17 to begin developing a shared vision for the future of the town. We had hoped to organise this sooner, but the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic prevented us from doing so. Coronavirus has pushed retail in a new direction, undoubtedly changing the shape of the high street for good, but I am positive we are on the right path to ensure our garden city remains a vibrant place to work, visit and shop for many generations to come.”

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