It is time we had capital funding to improve our smaller market towns, not just in Shrewsbury and Oswestry.
I have put forward a motion for next Thursday’s Shropshire Council meeting aiming to establish a capital fund for investment in the smaller market towns including Ludlow.
We must keep our smaller town centres alive. That will benefit residents and visitors. It will also ensure that Shropshire Council maintains its income from council tax and business rates.
Last week, the Commons housing, communities and local government select committee published a report High Streets and Town Centres in 2030. It makes proposals to help save the country’s high streets. But it is mostly talking about big towns and cities. There is only a passing mention for small market towns and rural areas.
It’s just like that in Shropshire Council. Only the biggest towns matter. The council has confirmed that Oswestry and Shrewsbury will be the local towns bidding in the first round of the government’s £675 million Future High Streets Fund. Whitchurch will be in the second round.
Ludlow didn’t bid. That’s partly because Shropshire Council was insisting of bids above £5 million, much more than we need. Confirmation from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that it was not insisting on a minimum bid level came too late:
“Hi Andy. Apologies for the delay in the response. To be clear there is no minimum threshold for bids. Laura Hurley. Head of Future High Streets Fund.” 12 February 2019.
There was also another late document from MHCLG which pretty much ruled out all but the most broken of town centres. It made clear it was thinking of towns like Eccles not Ludlow.
That doesn’t mean that towns like ours don’t need investment. Or that Wem doesn’t. Or Much Wenlock, Bishop’s Castle and Bridgnorth and the rest.
I can’t speak in detail for the other market towns but we know what we need in Ludlow. That’s an infrastructure upgrade for the park and ride. We need to maintain existing footfall. And increase it. We can’t create many more parking spaces in town. Our road capacity is limited. The only way we can drive up footfall is with a first class park and ride facility.
The Eco Park park and ride, owned by Shropshire Council, must be one of the most run down in the country. It is an embarrassment to Ludlow and the council. The parking surface failed years ago. Signs have been knocked over. The bus shelter is hardly in the image of the “most beautiful town in England”. The site has a persistent litter problem. We need a major upgrade. That should include EV charging points and new direction signs. Toilets. The bus stop outside the Ludlow Assembly Rooms needs upgrading. We could get a more frequent bus service of more people use the park and ride.
The rural economy has long been ignored by Shropshire Council. It comes second in any policy process behind Shrewsbury and Oswestry. But collectively we market towns punch our weight for the economy. And collectively, we will fade if we can’t get investment. We must face up to the challenge of internet shopping, of empty properties in the high streets of several market towns, and of ensuring that our market towns are destinations that people continue to love.
We need capital funding. We have put forward a proposal for a market towns vitalisation fund financed from council reserves or borrowing at this Thursday’s Shropshire Council meeting. We can’t design this fund in detail which would involve every town with a recognisable high street in the county. We are asking for a working group to be established to work out the needs with town councils and finance officers in short order.
On Thursday, we will see whether the council is prepared to invest in the smaller market towns or is only interested in Shrewsbury and Oswestry.
The following motion has been received from Councillor Andy Boddington and supported by Councillors Roger Evans, Chris Mellings and Tracey Huffer.
The recent government recently announced a Future High Streets. After discussions within councils and with MHCLG, it became clear that most rural market towns are unlikely to benefit from the scheme. This is not because these towns are thriving. Many are struggling. But the criteria issued by MHCLG tips applications towards failed town centres in larger towns and cities.
The Future High Streets fund has nevertheless created a desire for public sector intervention to boost and maintain the viability of high streets across Shropshire. Even those high streets that are currently regarded as successful could decline quickly in the face of challenges of online shopping and, should one occur, a recession.
Every market town in Shropshire has different needs. Some have derelict buildings. In others, the quality of the public realm is poor. Several need to improve sustainable transport infrastructure to increase footfall.
This motion instructs the council leader to appoint a task and finish group with the following terms of reference:
- To examine the case for and feasibility of a market towns vitalisation fund for Shropshire.
- To identify the level of budget required to meet identified need, using finance from capital reserves or borrowing as appropriate.
- To ensure the fund is open to all towns and large villages in the unitary area that have a recognisable high street, not just those considered to be a market town in planning policy.
- To report back to cabinet and council in May 2019.