Observer, our Saturday independent comment writer, assesses hopes and aspirations for Uckfield town centre.
People in Uckfield could well look south with some degree of envy.
Bold regeneration proposals have been unveiled for part of Hailsham town centre.
The engine for the redevelopment is Wealden District Council which bought the Vicarage Field shopping centre in 2017.
Just to give you an idea of the scope:
- New leisure centre
- New offices for the district council
- Seven-storey car park
- 280 apartments and town houses aimed at younger people
- New retail ‘format’ for the existing shopping precinct, with an emphasis on cafes, restaurants and entertainment.
The plan is at the early stages and consultation is just starting.
We shall see what eventually emerges but it does give me a feeling of ‘what might have been’ here in Uckfield.
The verdict on our town came last summer when it was announced there were “currently no viable options” for redeveloping Uckfield town centre.
All the things that might have made it possible have fallen by the wayside, as this web site reported at the time:
- Major supermarkets and retailers are not interested
- There’s limited potential for residential development as part of the project
- The Holy Cross School site is not available in the short term.
Three councils – Uckfield Town, Wealden District, and East Sussex County – which own land in the centre of town have been working together on potential regeneration for many years.
First it was stalled by the recession and then the change in the way supermarkets operate with the ‘big boys’ ending the store building race and the discounters wanting standalone premises.
If Wealden’s scheme for Hailsham goes ahead, it will really shake-up the place.
Once, like Uckfield, it was thriving market town but over the years it has been drawn more and more into Eastbourne’s orbit with the seaside resort almost sucking the life out of its little neighbour.
Uckfield still has a lot going for it but never in a month of Sundays will the likes of M and S come here. People can dream but business realities mean they are impossible dreams.
Marks and Spencer
M and S, and other big-name retailers, are retrenching and pulling out of towns that would appear to be far more affluent than we are.
Wealden’s ideas for the Vicarage Fields shopping centre give the clue – cafes, restaurants and entertainment – to the future.
As far as Uckfield is concerned, we can divine more thoughts on the future.
Uckfield town centre
Also coming out of Wealden District Council at the moment is the latest version of the Local Plan which has been submitted for independent examination by a government-appointed planning inspector.
It is instructive to look at what it says about Uckfield town centre:
“There is a complementary mix of multiple and independent retailers within Uckfield.
“Uckfield would benefit from more anchor stores and key high street retailers to help increase the attraction of the centre and the retention of shoppers who live in the local catchment area but choose to shop in the higher order centres outside the district; principally Royal Tunbridge Wells.
“However, attracting multiples to the centre will be difficult, and as a result the preferred strategy for Uckfield will be to consolidate its existing multiple and service offer, and build on the attraction and success of its independent and specialist offer, by improving the quality and choice of shops, cafés and restaurants.”
The emerging Plan gives support to my general thesis about Uckfield Farmers’ Market.
Although the plan does not talk about stalls in the High Street, it does say this:
“Uckfield Farmers’ Market would benefit from a more central location where it could accommodate more stalls and will have the necessary ‘critical mass’ to attract more people and generate linked trips to the benefit of other shops, services and facilities in the centre.
“It could also be beneficial for the town centre’s overall vitality and viability to provide a more permanent covered market, as this will lead to better management and marketing of the offer, and mean that it can operate year-round regardless of the weather.”
My comment on that is simple: Agree 100 per cent with that sentiment, as I suspect most people in Uckfield would.
Whether it is the High Street, or somewhere else in the town centre, there just has to be a better location to the current one.
The Plan notes Uckfield is losing shoppers to the ‘higher order’ centres, particularly for fashion.
“Therefore, it is considered that rather than trying to replicate the offer in these centres, Uckfield should seek to establish its own identity in the comparison sector; with the potential to promote its independent and specialist offer,” the document states.
All fine words.
Perhaps, Uckfield needs to go back to the drawing board; forget the plans from earlier in the century and address the realities facing towns all over Britain.
Online shopping is growing at an ever-increasing rate to the detriment of bricks and mortar retailers.
Modern era town centres
However, some places are reinventing themselves and have vibrant centres.
It looks as if Hailsham is heading in the right direction.
Uckfield needs to start thinking again and this should be a key task for the new town council, which will be elected in May.
An open, transparent discussion with residents would be the starting point, as long as everyone is realistic as to what is achievable.
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