In 2010 WBC adopted a Masterplan for Wokingham town centre, designed to help revitalise the town centre, bring back footfall and deliver much needed community facilities for all. Having scooped Best Housing, Regeneration or New Build Initiative at the APSE Service Awards 2020, we take a closer look at the wide range of benefits the regeneration is delivering to the Wokingham businesses and communities.
As with high streets across the country Wokingham’s town centre was suffering from a lack of investment in facilities and infrastructure alongside wider issues such as high levels of local residential growth, increased internet shopping, business closures and competition from larger neighbours.
The town had also seen several private town centre development schemes fail due to poor financial viability, concerns about overdevelopment of the town and a lack of buy-in from residents and wider businesses.
Recognising that a more strategic approach needed to be taken if the town was to be a success, in 2010 the Council adopted a Masterplan vision for Wokingham. This aimed to revitalise the town centre and help ensure it had the ability to adapt and thrive for years to come.
Key objectives and challenges
The key objectives identified in the vision were to:
In order to ensure the vision was successful and delivered a wide range of benefits for the community, the Council opted to take control and lead the regeneration themselves.
With the costs of regeneration sitting at circa £125m, the Council recognised the importance of not placing strain on public funds and added a further objective: that the regeneration should be financially viable, not rely on tax payer subsidy and should generate an income stream which could be used to fund essential services across the borough for years to come.
A professional team was pulled together to advise the Council in designing and delivering mixed use schemes for the three key sites of Peach Place, Elms Field and Carnival.
Proposals for these sites, which included the loss of popular car parks and the redevelopment of a local park and leisure centre, split residents and politicians significantly. This led to active campaigns and a vocal negative public image of the regeneration.
Recognising these concerns, the Council worked closely with a range of core stakeholders, including local civic and community associations, borough and town councillors, businesses and the wider community to bring forward appropriate proposals.
Extensive consultation was undertaken, including multiple public consultations, exhibitions, drop-in sessions, public meetings, and correspondence with local residents and businesses on a regular basis feeding into the designs.
Between 2015 and 2017 the Council submitted and secured detailed planning consent for all three sites which are being developed in phases to minimise the impact of delivery on the town centre. Construction work started on site in 2016 and the final phase is expected to complete in 2022.
As the different phases of the project complete and facilities open the benefits of the Regeneration for Wokingham are proving substantial for residents, businesses, partners and the Council itself.
New tangible benefits delivered in response to the Masterplan vision objectives include:
As developer and landlord, the Council has been able to curate the town centre, using flexibility over rents and terms, to ensure it reflects local aspirations and offers something different to larger neighbours Reading and Bracknell.
This has been achieved by placing a focus on independent and boutique businesses, with many new local start–ups, alongside larger high quality nationals such as GAILs, Oliver Bonas and Waterstones. The units have also allowed several existing small businesses in the town the opportunity to move to a larger unit and expand their offer.
Market interest has been high with the majority of new units already trading, let or under offer, a trend that has continued despite the impact of Covid-19 with over 12 new businesses opening since restrictions were brought in in early 2020. This positivity has had a roll over effect into the wider town centre with privately owned vacant units also being snapped up and very few empty units remaining in the town.
Initial tangible measurements established include income generated, footfall and parking figures and, following the opening of the new leisure centre and library, visitor numbers for these new facilities.
Whilst the Council could sell the commercial asset to generate a one-off profit of circa £44m the preference is to retain the commercial units to generate an ongoing income of circa £2.8m per year, set to rise to £5m t0 £6m as the costs of construction are paid off, which can be used to fund essential services across the borough.
Footfall counts taken at the end of 2019 demonstrate the regeneration is having a positive impact on the town with figures showing an increase of circa 10% on pre-project figures from 2016.
A rising profile alongside award recognition
The Council’s regeneration work has gained significant interest both locally and nationally helping the borough raise its profile as a great place to live and do business.
Following on from winning a Planning & Placemaking Award in 2016 the project also won the RTPI Excellence in Planning for a Successful Economy award in 2020 and has also been shortlisted as a finalist in in the Thames Valley Property Awards, Planning and Placemaking Awards, and for the SPACES Civic Building of the Year 2020. The regeneration was also singled out by the Sunday Times in October 2019 when identifying Wokingham as one of Britain’s most thriving communities
Since starting on the regeneration the Council has been able to develop a strong inhouse
development and investment team who will be able to take forward similar projects across the borough with less reliance on expensive external consultancy and support. In addition to the Council’s traditional projects the experience gained will also allow the council to focus in areas such as commercial and residential development which also offer increased opportunities for income generation through use of council assets.
Further information about the regeneration is available on the dedicated project
website at: www.regenerationcompany.co.uk