No, Ed, we still don’t need English Regions.

Regional devolution is back in the news following the Scottish referendum. The latest proposal to give more power to the regions comes from Ed Miliband, who wants to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate representing the “regions and nations” of the United Kingdom.

No, Ed, I don't agree.
No, Ed, I don’t agree.

I think this is just as daft an idea as the unlamented Regional Assemblies set up by former deputy PM John Prescott. While regions may make for convenient chunks of a map, or weather forecasts, or even a handy way of subdividing statistics, they are no basis for government administrative boundaries.

I live in Evesham, a traditional market town in Worcestershire. For statistical purposes, Worcestershire is part of the West Midlands, which has some value (though not a lot). We also get regional TV for the West Midlands. But we are not, in any meaningful sense, part of a West Midlands identity. My rural market town has nothing more in common with Birmingham – our putative regional capital – than it does with Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool or London.

A regional assembly, or a senate constituency, for the West Midlands would simply mean subsuming our county identity – which is predominately a rural and market town identity, plus the historic cathedral city of Worcester itself – into one dominated by the metropolitan concerns of Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Dudley, etc.

I live in the southern end of the West Midlands. There are parts of Herefordshire which go further south, but not by a lot. Coincidentally, before I moved here, I lived right at the north of the West Midlands, in Stoke-on-Trent. And, trust me, there is very little that Stoke-on-Trent and Evesham have in common, other than needing to go through Birmingham in order to get from one to the other. Oh, and Birmingham Airport is convenient for both. But the one thing we definitely do have in common is that neither of us has any more in common with Birmingham than we do with each other. The idea that Birmingham is somehow a natural or historic capital of the West Midlands, in the way that London is the capital of England, or Worcester is the capital of Worcestershire, is simply laughable.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the proposals for regional government come from the large metropolitan areas. For people in, say, Birmingham (or Manchester, or Newcastle), regional assemblies are a way for them to not only get a bit more freedom from London-based politics for themselves but also to be able to lord it over their suburban and rural hinterlands as well as second tier cities nearby. Those of us in the rural areas or smaller cities don’t gain anything. Instead, we simply have another layer of bureaucracy in between us and Westminster.

Letting the big cities have more power for themselves, London-style, arguably makes sense. But giving the big cities more power over their neighbouring counties does not. And that applies both to old-style Regional Assemblies as proposed by John Prescott and Ed Miliband’s new “Senate for the Regions”.

If we’re going to have a reformed House of Lords, then let’s do it properly and not create a metropolitan oligarchy which takes no account of genuinely local democracy. Instead of creating yet another layer of local government, let’s give more power to the layers we already have.

Evesham town centre retail – a few thoughts

At last Monday’s town council meeting, we were given a brief report by Shawn Riley, of the Evesham Market Town Partnership, about the town centre retail areas. The MTP has recently gone to the effort and expense of obtaining a lot of useful data about Evesham’s retail areas and how that compares to other, similar towns around the country. As a data nerd myself, I found it highly interesting. Here are some of the key findings.

Probably one of the most important things to note is that the vacancy rate – the proportion of empty shops – in the town centre, excluding the Riverside Centre is, at 13.2%, a little worse than the UK average of 12%. But it’s significantly better than the regional average of 15.3%. And, overall, Evesham has a higher proportion of independent shops than the national average (71% in Evesham compared to 66% nationally).

On the face of it, that looks like reasonably good news. Where it goes pear-shaped is when we add the Riverside Centre into the equation. The Riverside Centre has a whopping vacancy rate of 47.2% – that’s nearly half empty. And that drags down the town’s overall vacancy rate to 16.2%, which is not only worse than the national average but worse than the regional average as well.

So, what’s the problem? Well, we don’t really have too many shops overall. There are 358 retail units in Evesham town centre (that’s excluding the edge of town retail parks), which gives us an average population-to-shop ratio of around 55. That’s in the same ballpark as Pershore (57 people per shop) and Stratford-upon-Avon (56 people per shop), a little higher than Tewkesbury (47 people per shop) and a lot lower than Kidderminster (170 people per shop). But Kidderminster is the regional sore thumb, with an overall vacancy rate of 19.5% – we’re doing much better than that. We also have a lot more shops than Droitwich, despite being very similar sized towns. But I suspect that their retail centre suffers from being much closer to Worcester than we are (and Kidderminster is in easy reach of both Worcester and Birmingham, making it much harder for retailers there). Droitwich doesn’t have many shops, but it has a lower vacancy rate, suggesting that it’s never been a particularly retail-heavy town.

Looking at the Riverside Centre in detail, a number of things become obvious. One is that it has very much lower proportion of independent retailers, at only 33%. And the national retailers that it contains are almost all doing badly at a national level. We already know, for example, that Burton won’t be renewing their lease when it expires. But looking at their national figures, that’s not surprising – they’re in close to free fall across the country at the moment. Carphone Warehouse are also closing shops, as are New Look, Superdrug and H Samuel. Only three of the Riverside Centre’s chains are showing significant national growth, and one of those is one of the most recent newcomers, Sports Direct.

So the Riverside Centre’s problems are certainly not all related to Evesham. Having originally been targetted at national brands, the centre is now suffering along with them. Another problem is that, despite being aimed at national chains, the Riverside Centre’s units are mostly too small for them. That’s why M&S moved out, and didn’t return to the town until something more suitable at the Worcester Road retail park became available.

There are other, more local, issues, of course. The lack of access to the Riverside Centre car park from the centre and north of the town is certainly a major factor. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Riverside Centre’s problems are mostly of its own making: badly designed in the first place, and dependent on a dwindling pool of national brands that can use its shops. It also means that fixing it is not easy, and for the most part – with the exception of the access problem, which really does need to be sorted out – beyond anything that can be done by local government.

Leaving aside the Riverside Centre for the moment, though, what about the rest of the town? The data obtained by the MTP does give us some clues.

Firstly, a brief diversion here into explaining terminology. Retailers can, broadly speaking, be divided into four main categories: Comparison, Convenience, Service and Leisure. Taking those in reverse order, Leisure is fairly easy to understand: it means things like cafes, pubs, restaurants, entertainment (including cinemas) and stuff like that. Service is also mostly self-explanatory: it includes estate agents, travel agents, banks and other financial institutions, hairdressers, laundrettes and the such like.

Convenience shops are those which people tend to use on a regular basis for repeated supplies of much the same thing. Supermarkets (of all sizes) are the obvious example, but other food retailers such as butchers and bakers also fall into this category, as do newsagents and petrol stations.

Comparison is probably the hardest term to explain. In essence, what it means is shops that sell products that you only buy when you need them – things like TVs, washing machines, bedding, computers, clothes and shoes. Unlike convenience products, where you generally know what you’ll be buying before you go to the shop, comparison products are usually selected after comparing different versions of the same thing – either within the same shop or at different shops – before buying. Hence the name.

Nationally, comparison stores are suffering far more badly than the other three sectors. And a major reason is competition from the Internet. You can’t go to the pub on the Internet, or get a haircut on the Internet. You can buy food on the Internet, but the biggest suppliers of that are the supermarkets who are not competing with themselves. And independent grocers, bakers, butchers etc offer the ability to select and purchase fresh food in a way that a web-based retailer cannot (yet) match. The service sector is generally flat nationally, a reflection of the fact that some aspects of it (such as banking and travel agents) can easily be done online, while others (such as hairdressing) simply can’t. Convenience shops, on the other hand, are generally showing growth across the UK, while leisure is soaring ahead. All of the twenty fastest growing chains in the UK are in the leisure sector, and all of them supply food and drink in one way or another.

What that means for Evesham is that town centre retail growth is likely to come predominantly from the convenience and leisure sectors, with leisure being the largest contributor. And, in fact, we’re already seeing that to some extent. Evesham’s leisure vacancy rate is only 5.4%, which is not only much better than the retail average for the town but better than the national average for the leisure sector. The term “cafe culture” is probably over-used, but it’s clear that the future of traditional town centres like Evesham lies in a thriving leisure market. Convenience and leisure shops are also footfall generators; if you’re going into the town centre every day to get your lunch or to the butchers every week for bacon then you’ll be passing other shops and may be attracted into them.

Finally, one other point is worth noting. When we compare Evesham with similar sized towns across the country, then one particular statistic stands out. Irrespective of where a town is located, those which have a Waitrose not only have a lower vacancy rate than their regional average but also a lower rate than the national average. I’m a savvy enough statistician to know that correlation does not necessarily imply causality, but this is, nonetheless, significant. It doesn’t actually matter whether a Waitrose attracts other retailers (the so-called “Waitrose effect”), or whether Waitrose’s management are simply good at picking locations that are on the up (or even if there’s some entirely different cause which attracts both Waitrose and other retailers). What matters is that town centres which have a Waitrose are, statistically, far more likely to be successful than those which do not. So the fact that Waitrose are still on course to open a new store in Evesham is very welcome news.

Two-way access across Workman Bridge – a modest proposal

Pretty much everyone who lives or works in Evesham thinks that the current traffic arrangement between the High Street and Workman Bridge, with it only being possible to travel from the bridge to the High Street and not in the other direction, is undesirable and needs to be fixed. The question is, how?

The reasons behind the current layout are many and various. Swan Lane was first made one-way as far back as 1964. Since then, it’s been two-way again, and then back to one-way, but in the opposite direction. I’m not going to go into the details of how and why it ended up the way it is now, other than to comment that it isn’t the result of some Grand Design for Evesham’s traffic, but rather a sequence of independent decisions that, individually, all make sense but, cumulatively, have had a very suboptimal outcome. Here’s what we have now:

Current One Way system

So, what do we do? I’ve got a suggestion. Before I make it, though, I want to first take a quick look at two of the most common proposals, and explain why I don’t think they’ll fly.

Firstly, making Swan Lane, Chapel Street and Mill Street (or Mill Bank, as some maps have it) two-way all the way through. That would be the simplest solution, but it runs into several problems.

The most obvious is that if those streets weren’t considered capable of carrying two-way traffic in 1964, then they’re hardly likely to do so now. There are too many pinch points on that route for it to be suitable for two-way traffic, unless you exclude all long vehicles – but then that cuts off delivery access for Aldi, the Co-op and several other shops and businesses as well as diverting some key bus routes.

Another problem is that this would mean removing all the on-street parking on Swan Lane and Chapel Street, and this in an area where residents have little enough parking as it is. So, while superficially attractive, I really don’t think this will work.

The other commonly made suggestion is to make just Mill Street two-way, and reverse the flow in Oat Street, Swan Lane and Chapel Street. This has the advantage of avoiding almost all of the problems inherent with the first idea, but unfortunately it creates a couple of its own.

The first is that Swan Lane is currently two lanes wide for most of its length, while Oat Street just has one. What that means is that as traffic approaches the High Street along Swan Lane, it can queue at the lights in both lanes, and then when the lights go green two vehicles at a time can exit – one going left, the other going right or straight on. If you reverse the flow and send High Street bound traffic along Oat Street, then only one vehicle at a time can exit when the lights are green, meaning that the outflow capacity is halved. At peak times, that’s going to cause significant delays.

A second problem with the “reversed flow” approach is that it requires a second set of traffic lights on the High Street, just yards from an existing pedestrian crossing as well as the existing lights at the Swan Lane/Avon Street junction. That’s too many traffic lights close together, the pedestrian crossing would almost certainly have to go and it’s doubtful whether the other two sets would be far enough apart to meet DfT requirements (and, however much we may wish it were otherwise, a scheme which doesn’t meet national regulations is, and always will be, a complete non-starter).

So, given that I’ve just poured cold water on two of the most popular suggestions made by other people, what’s my idea?

My solution is simpler than the ones I’ve mentioned so far. There is, in fact, only one short stretch of road which needs to be made two-way in order to allow access from the High Street through to Workman Bridge. If you look at the map above, you can see it: the lower section of Mill Street. Make that two-way, and people can get to Workman Bridge via Oat Street, Chapel Street, Conduit Hill and Mill Bank. It’s a bit of a convoluted route, but it avoids all of the problems associated with either making Swan Lane two-way or reversing the flow in Swan Lane and Oat Street. And I think that being a bit convoluted is actually a good thing in this context, because it means that the only people who are likely to use it will be those who would genuinely benefit from it – people who are heading for Port Street and roads accessed from it, or who are heading to the Riverside Centre car park. For everyone else, it will still be quicker to go via Abbey Bridge.

That’s an important consideration, because one of the other objections to allowing traffic to reach Workman Bridge from the High Street is that Port Street is already congested and, in particular, has very poor air quality. Any changes which significantly increase traffic along Port Street, therefore, are likely to be strongly opposed. But my proposal, by making it possible, but deliberately awkward, to get to Workman Bridge from the High Street means that the traffic using it to reach Port Street will overwhelmingly be the traffic which already goes along Port Street, but at the moment reaches it from the High Street via Abbey Bridge and Waterside. There will be insufficient benefit for traffic headed elsewhere to switch to this route.

I could leave it there. But I think that it would work better with a few more tweaks.

The first is to make Conduit Hill and Mill Bank themselves one-way. This would effectively result in a figure-of-eight rotary system, with Chapel Street being the crossover. Here’s how it looks on a map:

Proposed One Way System

This does still have a few potential issues, but I think they are relatively minor and can be solved. The first is that Chapel Street becomes a potential choke point. It will carry more traffic than it does now, and that will include traffic merging in from two directions at the Oat Street end. That could lead to what’s known as “weaving” problems, where cars coming from the right and wanting to turn left interlace with cars coming from the left wanting to turn right. To avoid that, it would probably be necessary to repaint the lanes at the junction with Oat Street/Cowl Street to make it clear where priority lies in the traffic flow. I’d also like to open another entrance into Oat Street car park directly from Oat Street, so that traffic heading for the car park doesn’t have to go onto Chapel Street. That will tend to offset the additional volume of through traffic on Chapel Street.

Incidentally, although it looks tight on a map, the junction between Conduit Hill and Mill Bank is not a problem. It looks awkward as it’s a greater than 90 degree turn, but the radius of the curve is easily large enough even for long vehicles. Making those streets one way also means that on-street parking can be retained, which is very much needed here and would be threatened if both streets had to continue carrying two-way traffic at greater volumes.

A second genuine issue is that the additional traffic along Oat Street will make it less attractive to pedestrians. To address that, I’d put in a “road table” – that is, a large, flat hump of the type currently used in the High Street at the Bridge Street junction – in between Wallace House and the library, to slow traffic down. If guidelines permit, making it a zebra crossing would be even more helpful.

Finally, the junction between Mill Street, Bridge Street, Monks Walk and the Workman Bridge approach may need attention. With traffic coming from the High Street wanting to then turn into Monks Walk to get to the Riverside Centre car park (or even, for delivery vans, right into Bridge Street), it may need traffic lights to keep things moving. But this would also have the benefit of also improving the exit from Monks Walk and the car park, which can be awkward at peak times. Any lights here could be synchronised with their counterparts the other side of Workman Bridge, at the Port Street/Waterside junction, so as to maximise traffic flow.

There are possibly a few other places on the route that would need some relatively minor work, such as adjusting the kerb line in a few places. And, of course, white lines would need repainting and signs installed, as well as a set of traffic lights. But, overall, I think it would be a reasonably cheap option; something else which is also very important. Whatever we do has to be doable within the county’s highways budget. And a large proportion of that budget, don’t forget, has just been spent on Abbey Bridge. There isn’t an awful lot left in the kitty, so more grandiose schemes – even if they are workable – will be very much on the back burner for quite some time.

So, that’s my suggestion. What do you think?

Evesham parking concessions – some figures

Wychavon District Council have kindly provided me with some figures for the number of parking tickets sold in in district-run car parks in Evesham during the period that concessionary rates were in operation, compared with the same period the previous year.

The concessionary period ran from September 2013 to April 2014. Over that time, 418,151 tickets were sold, compared to 358,021 in the equivalent period the previous year. That works out at an average of around 2,020 a day during the concessionary period, compared to 1,729 a day previously. Or, to put it another way, Wychyavon sold an average of 290 more tickets during the concession period than normal.

So, does that mean it worked? Well, maybe. On the face of it, an extra 290 cars a day in the town is an improvement. But, on the other hand, 290 isn’t a lot. It’s an increase of just over 16%.

More importantly, other statistics obtained by Wychavon have shown that there was not a significant increase in footfall in the town centre during the concessionary period. So that 16% increase in cars doesn’t seem to have translated into a 16% increase in people.

How can we explain that? There are a number of possible reasons. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few:

People who would normally have walked into town, or taken a bus, chose to drive instead, because the parking was cheaper.

People who would have scoured the town centre for free parking were more prepared to pay for it instead, as it was cheaper.

People, particularly those only parking for a short period of time, who might previously have tended to keep an eye out for the parking attendant and not buy a ticket at all if they thought there was a low enough risk of ending up with a fine, decided that the risk wasn’t worth it for 20p and bought a ticket instead.

People used the town centre car parks, but didn’t visit the town centre shops.

There may, of course, be other reasons. But it doesn’t take many different reasons for them all to add up to enough to explain the difference between the extra cars and the lack of extra people.

The other issue here, though, is revenue. I don’t know how exactly much Wychavon earned from parking over the respective priods, but we can estimate a minimum. Assuming that everyone only paid for the shortest possible time, then during the concessionary priod the revenue was £83,630.20, while previously it was £179,010.50. In reality, both figures will be higher, because not everyone will have paid for the shortest time possible. But the additional income from longer time tickets will be much greater in the normal rates than during the concession, because normally the minimum price only buys you 30 minutes whereas during the concession 20p bought you three hours.

What that means, therefore, is that Wychavon’s revenue during the concessionary period was definitely slashed by at least 50% compared to normal, but in reality probably by far more. It would not surprise me if revenue was less than a quarter of normal.

That’s an unsustainable loss, and illustrates why the prices had to go back up again once the bridge had re-opened. It also illustrates why the argument that “cut prices, and more people use it, and you’ll make more money overall” is flawed. There’s an upper bound on the number of people using car parks in Evesham, partly limited by the number of available spaces and partly by the number of people who want to use them.

It also illustrates that tweaking parking prices isn’t necessarily the answer to increasing footfall in Evesham town centre. What’s more important is giving people a reason to come. And that’s an entirely different problem to solve.

If it aint broke…

Remember the Apple Maps fiasco? Google clearly didn’t.

I’ve previously blogged about how Google has managed to get the colour scheme horribly wrong in the latest redesign, but the latest change plumbs yet new depths of inanity.

You may have seen media reports of how Google managed to rename Basingstoke, but when my Maps were suddenly “upgraded” to the new version I noticed an equally glaring error right here in Evesham. Or, as Google now calls Evesham, “Raphaels”. Here’s a before and after screenshot:

Old Google Maps

New Google Maps

Actually, Evesham itself hasn’t been misnamed (unlike Basingstoke, which really was). What’s happened here is that a local business, Raphael’s Restaurant at Hampton Ferry, has, for some inexplicable reason, been given more prominence than the name of the town. If you zoom further in, or back out, then “Evesham” reappears on the map.

But why do this? I initially thought it might be a bodged attempt at personalisation, as I happen to know the owners of Raphael’s and eat there often. It’s not beyond the bounds of plausibility that, somehow, I’ve created enough of a digital footprint via social media that Google knows that, and is therefore highlighting it to me. But then again, neighbouring Pershore also shows up as “Holy Redeemer RC Primary School”, and I have no connection with that institution at all. In fact, until earlier today, I didn’t even know it existed.

So, what is the connection? My next thought was that it’s because Raphael’s Restaurant has a Google+ page, and a couple of generally positive reviews (currently rated 4/5, which is pretty good, really). But no, the Holy Redeemer RC Primary School doesn’t appear to have a Google+ page of its own yet. (It has an auto-generated Google one, but not a “real” one, if you know what I mean).

So I’m still none the wiser. And, while I’m not going to say anything negative about Raphael’s Restaurant (you should try the Sunday carvery, it’s excellent), I can imagine that other business owners in Evesham are somewhat less than chuffed about this. Why should Raphael’s be the first food outlet to appear on the map as you zoom in to Evesham? And why should the Evesham Pizza and Kebab House, in Port Street, be the second? (Other than the fact that I am a regular customer of theirs as well!). Why do St Richards First School and St Mary’s Catholic Primary School show up on the map of Evesham before the considerably larger Prince Henry’s High School? Why does the Vale of Evesham Christian Centre show up before Evesham Methodist Church? Why is Bonk the first shop to show up in the High Street (which is wrong now, anyway, as Bonk is moving to Port Street), and Phones 4U the first to be visible on Bridge Street?

I could go on. The entire selection of businesses on the new Google maps seems utterly random, and bears very little relationship to what people are likely to be looking for. If you want a primary school, a riverside cafe and a skate shop then it’s not a bad selection. But, realistically, how many people are going to care about these things?

I said in my previous post that Google seems to have stopped considering Google Maps to be first and foremost a map, and instead sees it primarily as a kind of geo-located business directory. That in itself is a bad move, of course. But it’s compounded by the fact that Google Maps is an absolutely atrocious business directory. It’s missing 90% of the businesses and organisations that people actually use, and of those it does include, it ranks them in an entirely arbitrary order of priority.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are three important things you need to know:

1. To opt out of the new Google Maps, click on the question mark icon at the bottom of the screen, and select “Return to classic Google Maps”.

2. Raphael’s Restaurant is definitely worth a visit if you’ve never been there before, particularly the Sunday carvery.

3. Buy your skate stuff from Bonk. Kim does a lot for the town, and needs all the business she can get.

More retail development in Evesham?

Well, well, well. Hot on the heels of last week’s news about the possibility of Waitrose coming to Evesham, we now have another proposal in the air. Earlier this evening, I received an email from a PR firm, Polity Communications, inviting me to an exhibition that they’re putting on in the Town Hall and Bengeworth Club where they will be showing information about a proposed new retail development at the top of Elm Road. Here’s a copy of the PDF that came with the email; feel free to download it and pass it around (they specifically asked me to help publicise the exhibition, which I’m happy to do).

The information we’ve got so far raises more questions than it answers. The proposed location, on the orchards between Elm Road and the by-pass, is not allocated for development in the South Worcestershire Development Plan. We don’t know, at the moment, who the intended occupants of the site will be, other than it is proposed to build “major new retail” facilities. And no planning application has yet been made. So, as things stand, this does seem to be very much a speculative proposal that may well find it difficult to get approval if and when it does actually reach the planning stage. Or, possibly, the proponents of the scheme may decide that Evesham isn’t for them, after all.

It is, though, an interesting concept. One of the big problems in the area is that we have two major housing developments on the north-east of town, Lavender Fields off Elm Road and the new development off Offenham Road, with no corresponding improvements in local retail facilities. These proposals are clearly intended to address that, by providing a new retail centre close to both of these housing estates. I’ve previously commented (repeatedly!) that supermarket retail provision in the town is unbalanced, with far more floorspace on the northern side of the river despite the fact that the majority of the population is on the southern and eastern side. This is becoming even more so with the new developments on the outskirts of Bengeworth. So we definitely do need another large supermarket on our side of town to provide an alternative to Morrisons.

In principle, therefore, I’d cautiously welcome this proposal, although I’d need to know a lot more detail before I could give it my definite backing. I think the location makes sense, even though it’s outside the SWDP allocation, and even more so if it can be accessed directly from both Elm Road and Offenham road so that traffic to it from either side doesn’t need to pass through the awkward junction between the two.

There will, of course, be objections that it’s taking trade out of the town centre. But, realistically, assuming it is a supermarket (and we don’t know that for certain either, but it seems by far the most plausible suggestion) then the reality is that large supermarkets are almost always on the edge of town. The proposed Waitrose is an exception, but that’s addressing a rather different market segment to that occupied by Tesco and Morrisons – and the newcomer, whoever that may be. And having a supermarket at the top of Elm Road will help reduce traffic along Port Street and across the river, which can only be a good thing. Supermarkets are a type of shop that, unless you live very close, you really do need to drive to. So adding a new on in the top right hand corner of the town should help to make a significant reduction in the overall length of journeys.

On a wider note, I find it encouraging that retailers want to come to the town. Obviously, with the population increase generated by the new housing developments, the potential market for them will expand too. But, even so, it’s a good thing when the town can sustain more shops. Assuming this – or something like it – goes ahead, all we need then is something on the west of town to serve the new developments in Hampton!

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. If you can, then make sure you get along to the exhibition and see what’s in store (pun intended, sorry). It’s at the Town Hall on Wednesday 26th June between 2pm and 7pm, and then at Bengeworth Club, Coronation Street on Thursday 27th June between 12 midday and 6.45pm. And then let me have your feedback, either here on the blog or via the Mayor of Evesham’s Facebook page. It would be good to know what people think.

Supermarket wines photo by Laura Thorne.

Waitrose coming to Evesham?

Waitrose lemons. Coming to a town near you?
As has already been reported in the local press, Wychavon District Council are planning to buy the land currently occupied by Evesham fire station and redevelop it for a supermarket. Rumours about the identity of the supermarket chain in question have been floating around for a while, but it can now be confirmed that it is (as most people already seem to know!) Waitrose. I have to admit that I’m one of those who’s known that for a while; the reason I haven’t said anything publicly before is because the negotiations have so far been confidential. But Waitrose have now agreed to their involvement being publicised, and there is, accordingly, a report in today’s Evesham Journal which names them. Here’s what their press spokesman had to say about it:

We are very keen to bring Waitrose to Evesham and are in discussions with the council over the possibility of opening a food shop where the fire station is currently located next to the Old Brewery car park. However, these discussions are at early stage and should we be in a position to progress with the proposal, would still be subject to planning consent. Importantly, the plans would see the fire station relocated to a brand new facility.

I think this is very good news, for lots of different reasons. I’ve said in the past that Evesham needs more supermarkets (you only have to see the length of the checkout queues in Morrisons to realise that!), and, while I’m happy to see M&S moving into the Retail Park on Worcester Road, a new town centre location is considerably better. And, on a personal note, I like Waitrose – I have been known to drive to Alcester to use the Waitrose there! So having one in Evesham is certainly good news for me. I still think we need another, larger supermarket on the Southeast side of town to provide an alternative to Morrisons for residents on the “outside” of the river, but that’s separate to the need for a medium-sized, upmarket food retailer in the town centre.

In many ways, the fire station site is ideal for a medium-sized supermarket of the type typically used by Waitrose. It’s close to plenty of parking in both Merstow Green and the Old Brewery site, and only a short walk from the town centre itself. People will be able to park in either of those, walk to the town centre and then go to Waitrose afterwards (or, indeed, the other way around if they want to!), so it will almost certainly bring more people into the town centre as a whole.

So what happens to the fire station? Well, the proposal is to move that to the former council depot site next to the leisure centre off Abbey Road. This is currently being used by the bridge contractors, Hochtief, as the base for their work rebuilding Abbey Bridge and will be empty once that work is complete. Moving would be beneficial for the fire service: the current site is awkward to access and, having originally been built in the 1960s, is very much in need of updating. A new, modern building suitable for the needs of the town and surrounding area in the 21st century is long overdue.

Just for the sake of argument, are there any reasons why we wouldn’t want this to happen? One obvious objection is that a supermarket will compete with the town centre shops rather than help drive trade to them. But I don’t think that’s realistic. Waitrose will just be a food shop, and most of the town centre shops don’t sell food. Those few that do are specialists that are unlikely to be affected. The only existing town centre shops which are likely to be in direct competition are the Co-op and Aldi. But I’m pretty sure that there’s a big enough market for all three of them – especially since the Co-op will still have the advantage of free parking, and Aldi has a very different target market. In any case, though, when M&S were applying for permission to move into the Retail Park, the most common objection was that they really ought to be in the town centre! Well, if this goes ahead we’re now getting a new town centre supermarket as well as M&S on the Retail Park, so everyone who was originally disappointed by M&S’s choice of location should be pleased. Tesco might suffer a bit (and M&S may be somewhat miffed too), as the new location will be a bit more attractive to residents from the south of the town who can reach it without going all the way through the town centre. But Tesco will retain its position as easily the largest of the town’s supermarkets and the only one which has significant non-grocery sales, so I don’t think that’s likely to be a huge loss to them.

There have been some comments on Facebook by people who think that Waitrose is too “posh” and would prefer a different supermarket, such as ASDA. Personally, I think that’s misguided. Waitrose does have a reputation for being at the upmarket end of the spectrum, certainly, but their standard range of products is no more expensive than those in Tesco or Morrisons. And I think it’s the upmarket end of the spectrum which needs filling, anyway. We’ve already got Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl, so it’s not as if the town is short on choice if what you want are “value” products. I’d be happy to see ASDA (or, for that matter, Sainsbury’s) opening a larger store somewhere off Davies Road or The Link, but Waitrose seems to me to be a near-perfect fit for the town centre.

There will, of course, be some disruption while the existing fire station is demolished and the supermarket built to replace it. But that’s unavoidable if we want Evesham to progress; we can’t preserve the town in aspic and insist that no major construction ever takes place. And, frankly, the fire station is an eyesore – its 1960s architecture is out of keeping with the rest of Merstow Green, and the blank wall at the bottom of the Old Brewery car park is just plain ugly. Opening up that space to the car park and constructing a new, sensitively designed supermarket (and Waitrose have good form in that respect) will make the whole area more attractive. From a visual point of view, it’s hard to see this as anything other than an improvement.

I can’t see any sensible objection to moving the fire station. The additional few seconds it will take fire engines to reach destinations in the north of the town after driving along Abbey Road will be balanced by shaving those same few seconds off the time taken to reach destinations south of the river. The new location will actually be fractionally closer to the majority of the town’s population anyway! And there are no other plausible uses for the depot site after the bridge works are complete, so the alternative is just to leave it empty for the foreseeable future.

The only plausible issue that I can see is the one raised by my counterpart Charles Tucker, Mayor of Pershore, who – in his capacity as a Wychavon councillor – raised the possibility that if Wychavon go ahead with buying the site, they could be left with a white elephant if Waitrose change their mind and decide not to go ahead. That’s clearly a genuine concern which needs to be addressed, as any loss made by Wychavon would be a cost to council tax payers. But it’s an issue which can be addressed by careful negotiation and timing, and avoiding getting committed to the purchase until it’s overwhelmingly likely that the project will go ahead. Wychavon is a well-run council, and I’m confident that the officers and staff will make the right decisions. So I don’t think this is a serious concern. The biggest danger is simply that the project gets abandoned and nothing changes, and that isn’t any worse than what we’ve already got.

So what might cause it not to happen? Well, there are a lot of organisations involved, all of which need to agree to it. Wychavon District Council, Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service and, of course, Waitrose all have to make a firm commitment to the project for it to go ahead. And it’s unlikely, even if the major players are agreed, that it would happen without the support of VECTA and the Evesham Market Town partnership. So a lot of agreement needs to be reached, and it only takes one participant to throw a spanner in the works. This is by no means a done deal yet.

I do think, though, that we’re at the point now where it’s more likely than not. I’m encouraged by the statement given by Waitrose to the press (quoted above), which affirms the strength of their interest. And I know that Wychavon and the local trade associations are firmly in favour.

All round, then, I’m certain that this is good news. Assuming everything goes to plan, Evesham gets a supermarket in the centre of town, the fire service gets a new, modern fire station and a brownfield industrial site is brought back into permanent use. There are, of course, a considerable number of hurdles to cross before it can become a reality. But things are moving in the right direction.

Waitrose lemons photo by Dave Crosby

Evesham voluntary sector – a plea for help

I’m trying to compile a comprehensive list of all the voluntary, charitable and civic groups that are based in, or work in, Evesham. I’ve already got a basic list, so I’m not starting completely from scratch, but I suspect that it’s missing several that it ought to include!

So, if you’re involved in a voluntary group, a club, a charity or some other form of local organisation in Evesham, please could you let me know about it – either by commenting on this blog post, or by email (see the ‘about’ page for contact details). What I need to know is the name of the organisation, and contact details for whoever currently runs it (secretary, chairman, president or whatever).

Just to clarify a bit, by “in Evesham” I mean anything which falls into these categories:

  • Groups, charities and societies specific to Evesham itself, such as the Civic Society, Historical Society and Caring Hands in the Vale.
  • Local branches of national or regional organisations, such as the Scouts, Shopmobility and the Red Cross.
  • Groups based outside Evesham but which draw a significant part of their membership from Evesham, such as the Sea Cadets in South Littleton.

Over to you, folks!

Branding Evesham

One of the things currently being considered by Evesham Town Council is the idea of “branding” the town in order to make it easier to promote both to visitors, potential new residents and businesses.

See more photos of Evesham at the Evesham Flickr Group.

The concept of branding a town isn’t new. For example, there are several “book towns” around the UK, including Hay-on-Wye, Wigtown and Sedburgh, where the town is promoted as a place for book lovers and local businesses are encouraged to cater to that trade. In the case of Hay-on-Wye in particular this has been a resounding success in making the town not just nationally but internationally famous.

Other examples of branded towns include the antique towns of Lostwithiel in Cornwall and Long Melford in Suffolk; Ludlow in Shropshire, Wellington in Cornwall and Mold in Flintshire which are promoted as food towns; and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight which is promoted as a vintage town. Then there are St Ives in Cornwall and Arundel in Sussex which are arts towns, and, topically this year, Much Wenlock in Shropshire which is the location of the Wenlock Olympian Games and was the inspiration for the modern Olympics. Just down the road from us, Tewkesbury is promoted as a riverside town.

All of these towns have found that focussing on one particular aspect of their local culture has been beneficial, both in increasing tourism and helping to raise the profile of the town among residents and businesses. So there’s nothing particularly controversial nor original in the idea of doing the same for Evesham. The question is, should we go down this route, and, if so, what should our focus be?

The town council has already had some proposals and kicked around a few ideas, which I’m not going to mention here because I don’t want to pre-empt the discussion. What matters more is what the residents of Evesham, and those who are likely to visit Evesham, think.

So, I want your thoughts. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Evesham, or are from the local area, or even if you’ve never heard of the place before – every opinion is valuable at this point.

If you do live in Evesham, how would you like you town to be perceived by visitors? What do you think would be more likely to help regenerate the town? If you’re not from Evesham, what are the things that come to mind when you think of Evesham? What sort of things might persuade you to visit, or shop here? And what do you think of the general idea of branding the town?