More imagination needed for future

With reference to the £100,000 the council is intending to spend on assisting Wilson Bowden to put together a fresh application to build a massive shopping mall on the site of the Chandos Street carpark, I would like to take issue with some of the council’s stated reasons (Courier, December 16) for taking this action.

The Green Party has been, both against this project from day one and we have therefore studied with interest the increased number of objections sent in in September 2011 (over one hundred). The idea that the people objecting to this scheme are simply ‘anti change’ or not aware of ‘commercial realities’ is deeply insulting and ludicrous. Some of those objections came from businesses large and small who are perfectly aware of ‘commercial realities’ and of why there is a need for retail development. The objections that I perused were intelligent and painstakingly detailed in their analysis of the issues, commercial and social. They were also heard and acted upon when the planning committee democratically voted against the scheme in December 2011.

I was present at that meeting and watched the process as the commitee moved slowly towards their decision. One overwhelming factor in that decision was the impact of the presentation on everyone present. The virtual images graphically showed the truly ugly reality of this inelegant and engulfing monster that was set to gobble up three entire streets, force itself up against residents’ windows and demolish character buildings. There was a sense of shock and disgust at the enormity of it. But there was also a question mark as to how it had got this far along the planning route before the committee realised its untenability.

Well how had it, since at least one of the reasons for its rejection was that it didn’t comply with the Local Plan? One answer is that because of the rapid pace of global and economic change since the conception of this plan, opinions, those of objectors and councillors alike, had shifted.

When implying the naivity, lack of imagination and ignorance of the objectors, the council might like to turn the spotlight on themselves for a moment. They might like to reflect on the failed and costly (in terms of money and architecture) experiment of Livery Street (also Wilson Bowden) or on however much money the rejected Clarendon Arcade proposal has so far cost the public. At the very least, if they must mount a continuing argument in its favour, they could try not to resort to empty and patronising generalisations.

I understand that such retail development is one arm of government policy and that the council may feel themselves between a rock and a hard place, but then they are not always so slavish. Look at HS2. Also, the coalition itself is making alternative noises about ‘the future of the high street’. Recent reports and case studies on town regeneration emphasise that retail solutions alone are not the answer.They recommend developing the social, diverse cultural and historical aspects of a town and giving the people of a town a major part in decisions about its future.

A more imaginative and creative approach to the development of the town is now urgently needed, rather than the current one dimensional view of Leamington as a shopping destination in competition with Solihull and Coventry. The town’s website is sadly defficient in this respect. Nothing is made of the history of the town.

As a venue for visitors its many attractions are whittled down to shop, eat, drink! The interactive map on the site stops at Priory Terrace. The Leamington Assembly isn’t on it, nor is the station! Also, disgracefully, according to this map, Old Town does not exist. Old town, the original source of the town’s history and wealth, has effectively been wiped off the commercial and the historical face of Leamington.

Yet the council choose to deepen this divide further by building a ‘centre’ on the Chandos Street site, further concentrating traffic at that end of town and further discouraging visitors and local shoppers from exploring the length of the town.

Geographically the centre of the town is the River Leam. Historically it was south of the river. Where is it now? The question is do we have one? The centre of a town needs to be its heart, its pulse and reflect the full life of the town not some developers’ sterile, insulated, dream that further swallows up the natural thoroughfares and public spaces that map the town’s unique character.

There is a lot of creative energy and cultural diversity in Leamington, the whole of Leamington. There is a fascinating history which began south of the river and continues to the present day with the traditions of healing and charity.

Leamington is uniquely blessed because people still live in the town. It hasn’t, like some places, lost its soul. It is a beautiful town with unique attractions which is why people come here. So why not build upon these, encourage them and represent them on the website? Why not use these qualities to develop the town in a sustainable way?

Old formulas for growth may be convenient and appear ‘safe’ to those having to make these decisions but they are just not enough any more. - Jo Sutton, Warwick & Leamington Green Party.

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