08:19 Friday 17th July 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
DOTTY MCLEOD: Here’s the claim this morning: retailers need to work together if they and the town centres they inhabit are to survive. That’s what one local businessman has told me this morning. It comes as shoppers in an East Cambridgeshire town say it’s centre is now just dead. The comments come as the MP for North East Cambridgeshire met with officials from Barclays Bank, trying to convince them not to close the last remaining bank in Littleport. Steve Barclay, for that is co-incidentally his name, was joined by local councillors at the House of Commons. If the bank does shut in October, it will be the latest in a long line of amenities to be lost from the town. Tom Horn has this report from Littleport.
TOM HORN: Littleport is perhaps no longer known for its bustling town centre. Previously it boasted several bakers, clothes stores, a bridal shop, a fruit and veg outlet, butchers, several pubs and three banks. Despite the recent addition of hundreds of new homes, down the years that list has slowly dwindled. Now with Littleport likely to lose its last bank too, these shoppers say the town centre desperately needs attention.
SHOPPER 1: We had two chemists, and I do believe that chemist is closing down as well and going into the doctors. I know they’re still going to be about. And we’ve only just got the Co-op up here now really for food shopping.
SHOPPER 2: It’s sad to see some of them closing, because we’ve lost the butcher haven’t we, and a few other shops.
SHOPPER 3: Just lots of take-aways now. There used to be three banks, and you could get all you wanted, but it has changed from what it was years ago when I was a youngster. There was a choice of the shoe shops. There was a shop of every description.
TOM HORN: Well people who have seen first hand the impact of the shrinking town centre are of course those who do still work there. I went into the Boswell & Sons bakery on Littleport’s Main Street. How long have you lived in Littleport, or worked in Littleport?
BAKER: All my life.
TOM HORN: What’s the high street like now compared to what it’s been through the years?
TOM HORN: What makes you say that?
BAKER: It’s because there’s nobody about. There’s nothing really to draw people into Littleport. People go out of the village I think. And we used to do really well. It used to be really busy. But we’re not even busy now.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Tom Horn there reporting from Littleport. With me now James Palmer, who is the Conservative Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council. So James, going, going, gone. Or dying, dying, dead. Do you agree that Littleport is on its knees?
JAMES PALMER: Well I hope it’s not on its knees, but …
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well plenty of people who live there think so James.
JAMES PALMER: Well I think Littleport is reflecting the way that people shop now in the modern era. And we can do all we can to try and encourage people to shop in town centres. In interviews and things like this the people always say yes, we want to shop in our town centre, but it’s just not seen on the footfall in town centres. It’s the modern way of shopping. People go out of town, they work out of town, and they shop out of town. And it’s not just Littleport that’s suffering in this way, it’s similar villages and towns right across the country.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So that’s it is it? A hopeless case.
JAMES PALMER: No I don’t think so. I think what you can do or what we are trying to do is encouraging business growth in the village, trying to get jobs, people to work in the village. And obviously we know and you will know that we’ve got growth plans for Littleport, for more people to live there. I think some 1,500 new houses going into Littleport in the next five to ten years. So it’s not a give-up on the town centre in any sense of imagination. Of course not. It’s doing what we can. But councils only have so much, so many, powers. They cannot force people to shop in town centres.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Of course they can’t, and I think everyone would accept that. There’s been some claims from some people who live in East Cambridgeshire and who live in Littleport that really you at the District Council, you only really care about Ely. And places like Littleport don’t get a look in.
JAMES PALMER: Well that’s completely wrong. If you were to speak to the local councillors that work very hard with the County to put together newsletters, and I know that David Ambrose Smith and Christine Ambrose Smith over the last four years they’ve spent many many hours trying to build up Littleport town centre, trying to get shopkeepers involved in their ideas, and trying to get the people of Littleport out shopping in Littleport.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Let’s go to Claire Wright, who works for the Country Land and Business Association as their East Regional Surveyor, because Claire you feel that hope might be on the horizon for communities like Littleport.
CLAIRE WRIGHT: We do. Yes. I work advising members across the Eastern Region, and one of the things that I see coming across my desk on a more than daily basis is problems with the planning system, where Local Plans just haven’t seemed to keep up with the needs of rural communities. The Government has been trying to ease the problems by bringing in new ‘committee development rights’, which allows the conversion of farm buildings to either commercial uses for businesses or for residential use. But generally the story across the County Dotty is that we haven’t seen any development in some of these rural settlements for the last twenty five years, which means you’ve got no new young families. The younger generation can’t find a home in the villages, which then means gradually you begin to lose the bus routes, you lose the shops, pubs, the local schools, the post office. And gradually you see a slow death of these rural settlements. What we would like to see is a much more positive approach from the District Councils towards getting their Local Plans to cover rural settlements, and also a more proactive approach to the new Class Q permitted development rights.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK. Well James Palmer, there’s a bit of a gauntlet for you. You’ve got your Local Plan in East Cambridgeshire, but also your Corporate Plan.
JAMES PALMER: Indeed.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Is there anything in either of those that specific about helping town and village centres like Littleport?
JAMES PALMER: Well we are just about to redo our Local Plan, because we’re not satisfied it is as robust as it should be in helping towns and villages. And we are working very much towards that in Littleport. And as you may well be aware, district councillors at Cambridge are forwarding money to the new schools development in Littleport, which gives a new secondary school, a new primary school, and a special school. So there is extreme investment coming on in the village, and as I say we have put forward development, housing development for the village. And for those of you who know Littleport, the Highfields development is a very very fine estate of lovely houses, and I’m sure that most people want to live there. And let’s not forget Littleport is very fortunate to have its own mainline railway station. So there’s lots going on in Littleport, and we’re trying very hard to address this situation.
DOTTY MCLEOD: James Palmer there, Conservative Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council. And you also heard from Claire Wright, who works for the Country Land and Business Association. Claire’s their East Regional Surveyor.