Is Uckfield’s future being left to chance now town centre redevelopment plans have been mothballed, asks a man who helped launch discussions on the future of the town back in 2005.
Mick Harker, Ian Smith and Margaret Kiloh, were members of a working group that helped build a vision for the future on the back of enthusiasm from townspeople who played a big part in consultations at the time.
Twists and turns
In this Uckfield News feature Mr Harker, who is no longer a councillor, and former Uckfield Mayor Cllr Smith, look back at the twists and turns taken over the years as changes wrought by the economic crisis of 2008, in people’s shopping habits since, and the needs of supermarkets and retailers have affected a project they began.
It was back in 2005 that Uckfield town councillors were galvanised into action to take control of development in Uckfield town centre.
Tesco was looking to expand and councillors were concerned about piecemeal development as they considered their response to a Wealden Local Development Plan being formulated.
A town council working group – whose members included Mick Harker, Ian Smith and Margaret Kiloh – was formed in July 2005, and members of the public were invited to working meetings on specific topics in October 2006.
A paper detailing conclusions was generated in November that year and a survey was drawn together and distributed to the nearly 5,700 households then in Uckfield.
About 2,400 completed questionnaires were returned to Uckfield Town Council – a very high percentage rate of return.
By August of 2007 a draft master plan was ready to go to full council for approval.
Once that was issued district and county councils, and the fire and rescue authority agreed to join the town council in a group working for the common good of the town.
Hopes of making progress were dashed by the economic crisis of 2008 but then plans were resurrected in 2014 as the economic climate improved. See: Plans to redevelop the heart of Uckfield brought forward.
But now, less than three years later, redevelopment talks have been mothballed again due to lack of interest from major supermarkets and retailers, restrictions on housebuilding in Uckfield – town centre homes could have helped pay for redevelopment of the area – and the fact that the county council has decided Holy Cross school should remain on its current site for the time being.
Looking back Mick Harker said there had been a journey of many twists and turns.
“In spite of what people started to say latterly, the fact that the original public consultation actively engaged nearly half the households in Uckfield, plus focus groups, and the whole community college, mean that the plan did reflect what people wanted at the time.
“No closed Facebook group here, or people signing a sheet of paper, this was active consultation, in depth with some great responses.”
Ian Smith, still an Uckfield town councillor, said they were heady days. Everybody in the community was working together and enthusiastic about the future.
He said: “I feel a bit crestfallen at where we are now. Mick has always been very cautious and I suppose I take more of a ‘let’s-get-on-and-do-it’ approach, but I can’t help wondering whether there were opportunities we missed.”
But Mick said there was always the possibility that they could have ended up with a white elephant.
He was philosophical about plans being mothballed now. “I think because the money isn’t there and the market – the effect of the internet on shopping habits and supermarkets favouring smaller outlets – is still changing, a pause is good.”
Mick’s main concern going forward is that there now doesn’t appear to be anybody – or group of people – who are really thinking about what sort of town we want in 2025 when the 1000+ houses are built in Uckfield, and, perhaps, we have a new rail link in the town. “Are we just going to leave it to chance,” he asked.
He said: “ It’s a great pity that the neighbourhood plan doesn’t have the same community involvement, or doesn’t build on the work started by town councillors in 2005.
“If you have a plan, agreed by the community then you can hopefully reach an outcome that benefits the whole community.
“Councils need to think long term, that’s why they are elected. Sometimes projects work out – like the monies previous councils put aside for the renewal of playgrounds and other maintenance projects that happened in 2016 – but the more ambitious the project, the more there is a risk that market forces change the need or direction of travel so you need a plan to see what you are aiming for.”
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