COMMENT: Our councils are failing to repurpose our town centres

The View from the Hills by Gareth James

Sunday 24th April 2022 7:00 am
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Aberystwyth town centre
(Cambrian News )

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I MOVED to the Ystwyth Valley for peace and quiet. This is why, as urban friends and family step over my rural threshold, a gentle reminder is offered, a reminder to partake in the rare tranquillity they find in these parts, not to gush city habits, nor recreate a chaos left behind. The word rarely works. Phones are checked though there is no signal. Arguments that don’t exist are picked. And in the forest an app is opened, then distance walked transmitted, and some faraway colleague impressed, apparently.

Similarly off message, the steady stream of old boys shoe-horned into racing leathers astride mid-life-crisis motorcycles. And the convoys of 4x4s stuffed with frustrated desk-jockeys in search of muddy puddles in which to splash. And the columns of shiny new sports cars and fume-spewing bangers in which, from now until the middle of autumn, peacocking Englishmen process and pose past my front door. An unending parade of middle-aged insecurity, throttling up unnecessarily and entirely missing the point of being in a wilderness.

A personal upside to lockdown was thousands of noisy interloping baby-boomers staying home. Our hills suddenly and blissfully free of weekend warriors. The sobering downside, tens of thousands of thoughtful visitors who come to mid-Wales to appreciate coast, dramatic landscape, star-filled skies, and calm, they stayed home too. The village shop closed.

It was back in 2019 that outgoing leader of Ceredigion council, Ellen ap Gwynn, warned mid-Wales would become little more than a tourist playground unless plans to boost the region’s economy succeeded. As though necessary, lockdown provided an apocalyptic preview to the precarious nature of an economy over-reliant upon tourism. The effects of vanished tourists were not only felt by public-facing businesses, in an acceleration of already rapid town centre denudation, but also in undermining broader business confidence, so hastening a recently highlighted ‘great resignation’ (Mid Wales hit by the ‘Great Resignation’ Cambrain News, 17 March). With little progressed since Gwynn’s dire pronouncement, again mid-Wales crosses fingers in hope of a few months of fair weather.

With an imperative to develop economic diversity remaining, the heralded Levelling Up programme, upon no inspection, might appear the vehicle to achieve such a boost. But scanning the scant website and airy White Paper, nothing concrete or of moment is revealed; what a cynic might describe as vague platitudes published conveniently ahead of an election. So where are alternative local plans for subsidised start-ups, for a creative industry or tech-hub? Where are local opportunities for aspirational graduates beyond bar-work and caregiving? And what about those often-mused-over town centres?

Time is overdue for our region’s councils to either properly support or repurpose crumbling town centres; this has been said. It is less understood that councils own a meaningful number of the region’s distressed shops and bars. So why wait for struggling retail tenants and leaseholders to beg for unlikely grants, or cease trading, before taking action? Why is it not policy to redevelop public stock in cooperation with existing businesses? An immediate boost for dilapidated high streets, local contractors, as well as for wider confidence.

And on an embarrassingly practical level, how is it still quicker (and usually cheaper) to travel from London to any other European destination, than to the west coast of Wales? Therefore, most obviously, meaningful investment in transport infrastructure to adequately serve mid-Wales’s businesses and tourist industry alike. Hardly a revolutionary idea; a speedier link from Cardiff, Liverpool, or Birmingham, is the first plea of every leg-stretching visitor.

Finally, on a selfish note, of course I urge national neighbours to visit mid-Wales, just not to seek out the noisiest available transport to get here.

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