We are taking another look at the problems, issues and challenges our town centre in Chesterfield has in this post.
‘Revitalising the Heart of Chesterfield’
Several weeks ago the Civic Society was invited to take part in a walkover of the town centre as part of a scheme to improve the ‘public realm’ between the railway station and the Market Place. (This follows on from our public meeting held earlier this year). The scheme has been given the name ‘Revitalising the Heart of Chesterfield’. The work is to be funded by the Government as part of the ‘Levelling Up’ policy.
Most of those taking part, in the walk-round, except the consultants engaged to prepare plans for the Borough Council and an official from Historic England, have been familiar with the town centre for many years. All were aware of its recent history and the way in which its appearance has gradually deteriorated since the redevelopment scheme of the late 1970s created the present overall street picture.
All were agreed that the root of the present problem lies in the decline of town centre retailing – including the quality and variety of shops as well as the number of empty units – and that this affects virtually all towns, especially those in poorer parts of the country.
This is not a new problem, nor is it one which a local authority can do a great deal to solve. The Borough Council now owns the freehold of The Pavements, opened in 1981, but is not otherwise a major landlord in the town centre, and has limited scope to encourage new businesses to open, for example, by offering rent-free periods or other concessions.
Nor can local authorities offer rate rebates as they once could. The other problem, which is not always appreciated by those who criticise the council, is that local authorities have very little control over what private owners do with their property, unless a building becomes a health hazard or a danger to public safety. If a private owner insists on seeking a rent which no prospective tenant can afford, rather than lowering the rent to the point at which a tenant will come forward, that is a matter for the owner, over which the council has no control.
The refusal of some owners to offer lower rents appears to explain at least some of the voids in the town centre. Private owners can criticise a local authority for charging what they deem to be ‘excessive’ business rates, or can blame the council for what they consider to be the unreasonably high cost of car-parking, but the council will simply say that their hands are tied by government policy and the need to balance the books.
None of this is going to be changed by public realm improvements. It may change if the economy picks up and with it demand for shops in Chesterfield, or (as is increasingly suggested) by a fundamental shift in land usage in the town centre away from retailing to residential and leisure uses .
Change is perhaps most likely to come as a result of both factors, and possibly others which no-one has yet thought of.
That said, it is always desirable to improve the appearance of any town centre and the walkover looked at various places where there is scope for this.
Participants on the walk visited and reviewed various areas of the town centre including the following
- Corporation Street which will be remodelled as part of the redevelopment of the station approach. The Pomegranate and Museum are, of course, currently closed. But what to do about the privately owned Kilblean House, which continues to disfigure the same side of Corporation Street?
- Rykneld Square – where it was generally agreed that the existing layout is not ideal.
- Market Place – where our representative stressed the need to take account of the market traders’ views on the future layout of the Market Place, since without them the market has no future. We also want to avoid changes that cannot easily be reversed, in case they prove less successful in practice than they look on a drawing
We now await further proposals from the consultants as to how they envisage the ‘Heart of Chesterfield’ being ‘revitalised’, even if they cannot find a way to fill empty shops.
The walk around Chesterfield town centre was also covered in an article in the Derbyshire Times, which you can read here.