Could success of Belgian town hold key to Bognor Regis’ future?
A small town outside Brussels could hold the key to giving town centres such as Bognor Regis a new lease of life.
Ten leaders from among the District Council Network will be heading to Belgium to find out how the town has managed to overcome the challenges of a changing retail world ‘and became a very vibrant town centre’.
The news was shared by leader Gillian Brown at a meeting of Arun District Council’s cabinet, where members were given an update on the bid for a share of the government’s £675m Future High Streets Fund.
Karl Roberts, director of place, said the bid was still being worked on and the deadline was the end of this month.
Mr Roberts stressed that the fund was not designed to bring more shops to the town centre but to encourage people to spend more time there through leisure and social activities, and even events.
These were areas in which their Belgian counterparts seem to have excelled.
Mr Roberts reminded the meeting of the success of the Aerial Birdman in 2015, which saw a 445ft zip wire send people hurtling through the town centre from 50ft in the air.
He added that the focus was on diverting people into the town centre and ‘making more of a link between the seafront and town centre’.
Mrs Brown said that the expression of interest in the High Streets Fund needed to go in straight away, which would give the council time to look at the work carried out in Belgium, to see if any of it would transfer well to Bognor.
She added: “Bognor Regis town centre is, like many up and down the country, facing very challenging times, particularly with the growth of internet shopping.
“The council has done a lot to support the town centre over recent years, including providing funding for the town centre manager.
“We’ve had delivery of the very successful public realm scheme, we’ve supported the BID – the business improvement district – and, more recently we’ve purchased the Arcade.
“But we have to run fast just to stand still at the moment. There’s such a lot going on.”
There were strong words from Paul Wotherspoon (Con, Middleton on Sea), who disagreed with a suggestion from another meeting that Amazon-type retailers were ‘the way ahead’.
He described how online shopping had massively affected high streets, adding: “Just have a look at Chichester’s West Street, the bulk of which is boarded up and empty.”
Mrs Brown said: “We have to accept that town centres are changing tremendously now. They’re not going to be retail centres.”
While the committee was told that the council was ‘hopeful’ that its bid would be successful, Mr Roberts offered a word of caution.
He said: “The pot is £675m, which sounds a lot but there are likely to be around 500 bids and only a few will be successful.
“We do need to have a bit of a reality check around our chances but I’m hopeful.
“We are developing a good bid.”