JIM PARKER: Breathing life into our town centres
COMET, Jessops, HMV and now Blockbuster — when will all this so-called blood on the High Street end? The DVD rental chain was the latest to hit financial trouble when it went into administration last week.
Attempts are being made to save some stores and Blockbuster outlets in Torquay, Paignton and Newton Abbot have so far survived. But for how long as thousands of people continue to be forced into the dole queues in just a couple of months.
What are the powers-that-be doing in Torbay to try to halt, or least slow down, this misery as more and more people carry out their shopping by clicking a mouse or by flocking to out-of-town shopping malls and superstores where access is easy and parking meters, charges and wardens are nowhere to be seen?
Evidently, there is a little 'task force' working away in the background to come up with some solutions, but one councillor, who is a member, reckons our town centres will never be the same.
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Tory Alan Tyerman sits on the cross-party task force with deputy mayor David Thomas and fellow councillors Alan Faulkner and Mike Morey.
Cllr Tyerman, who is also a director of the Torbay Development Agency, says the group was formed between six and nine months ago and focuses on regeneration possibilities with potential developers.
Mayor Gordon Oliver usually looks after redevelopment opportunities, but he is staying in the background at the moment because of the project currently being worked on by the task force — namely a possible supermarket redevelopment on the site of the current town hall car park in Lymington Road, Torquay.
Cllr Tyerman says: "The town hall development is the main project we are dealing with at the moment.
"We and the Torbay Development Agency have met with the developers. Gordon Oliver is a little concerned about a possible conflict of interest because he owns some town centre properties. He feels this would be the best way to look at it."
So how does Cllr Tyerman see the town centre shaping up as he seeks a way of rejuvenating and rescuing it?
"It is a difficult one. This is not just a Torbay problem. It is a national problem," says Cllr Tyerman.
"I find it very difficult to see how the town centre can survive in its current format.
"At the end of the day we are going to have to accept that we are going to need a lot fewer shop units.
"My children hardly went out for their Christmas shopping. It was done on line.
"Over the next two or three decades you can see on-line shopping dominating. This generation will not return to the shops when they reach 50."
He said to avoid empty spaces dominating the retail landscape, some of the High Street will have to be turned into residential accommodation.
He said there may be some resistance from shopkeepers who would want to survive as individual businesses.
Part of the challenge is how you mix flats and shops virtually in the same location. Or do you actually shrink the town centre and set aside some of it for residential only?
The future of Torquay town centre has been in the spotlight recently as its master plan for the next 20 years is drawn up under the Torquay Neighbourhood Plan.
Susie Colley, chairman of the Neighbourhood Plan Forum, and her team of volunteers have spent endless hours staging public meetings before drawing up a report to get a feedback from residents. She was not over-enthused with the initial response.
She revealed over 10,000 leaflets had been distributed, but only 192 responses had come back in.
"I am truly taken aback that the residents of Torquay clearly do not give a flying jot what happens to their town," was her first reaction.
"Maybe the message has to be reinforced that folk are happy with the cemeteries being built on in the future and blocks of flats either side of the war memorial?"
But then she warmed after a good turn-out at a subsequent meeting and a positive feedback from the Prince's Foundation after they reviewed the planning blueprint.
Susie says: "There were 60 people there. I was very encouraged. Everybody was encouraged by the Prince's Foundation report."
In fact, the foundation has told the community campaigners to be 'bolder' with their regeneration plans.
Susie says: "They are saying make things clearer — make it obvious Torre Station is on the way to the seafront. Move the station further up the line and have the traffic coming straight down into town and straight through Torre."
Yep, big, bold moves and a blank sheet of paper are what we need to breathe new life into our town centres and shopping areas before the life support machine is switched off.
It looks as if council officers are putting great emphasis on the town hall plan.
They were keen to protect the potential development and that's why they wanted the Morrisons store plan for Babbacombe turned down as it was seen as a threat, but is that being 'big and bold?' What about the jobs it would have created?
Then we have the Tesco mess in Brixham where the town council has thrown out a £20million store plan which would have also provided work for many more.
It just seems that as soon as the door is gently opened to a developer it is then firmly slammed in their face.
As Susie Colley says: "Why does everybody say 'you cannot do it'"
If we are not careful we will be left with a 'will the last one out please switch off the light' scenario. Time is not on our side.