Agenda item

Hemel Town centre Vision



SWhelan gave a short presentation on the Hemel Hempstead Town Centre Vision with an overview of the Hemel Place Board, which advocates for Hemel Hempstead and considers the investment opportunities to get the best out of all interventions that are operating and horizon scanning going forward. The strategy will bring together current programmes and consider the town centre as a first step with short, medium and longer-term interventions, and the strategy looks to grow relationships across Hemel Hempstead and integrate with communities and businesses. A consultation took place at the start of the work and focused on the idea of growing a fresh new future for Hemel Hempstead with themes focusing on enterprise, connections and wellbeing. The story was launched in July 2022 and is now part of the vision being presented.


The town centre vision links all the interventions taking place and considers how the town centre needs these interventions to support its growth. The vision is an overarching view of the aims and ambition and is not a delivery plan, it is aimed towards investors and how to increase the profile of Hemel Hempstead. Throughout previous planning, Hemel Hempstead has fallen below the radar in terms of investment. The drivers for change include reduced footfall, as well as considering how people now use town centre spaces and how to mitigate climate change. The five priorities for the town centre are (1) focus on Bank Court as the heart of the town centre, (2) improve east-west connections, (3) reimagining Waterhouse Street, (4) reconnecting the old and new towns and (5) Hemel Imaginarium, which looks at revitalising the town centre in the short-term.


The natural environment is a strong asset of the town centre. Opportunity sites are critical and a flexible approach will be taken. A soft-launch of the vision was given at UKREiiF and was positively received.


Cllr Pringle asked how flexible and future-proof the vision is, noting that the work started a few years ago and that they are only reflecting on the long-term change catalysed by the pandemic. Cllr Pringle queried if they should look at the plan in terms of future-proofing and lifestyle changes are still being observed so the vision needs to be innovative and flexible.


Commenting on the post-pandemic world, SWhelan advised that this has been considered with economic development and that feedback from surveys is that businesses are still learning, such as around hybrid working and spaces are required. SWhelan stated that research suggests that, by 2030, much of the office space will be for co-working. On land uses, SWhelan advised that the plan takes the opportunity sites and is open to what the land uses could be, and the vision is firmer on Marlowes and the main retail hub. SWhelan suggested that they not pause as there could be an unknown amount of delay and the vision has been kept open enough. SWhelan noted the feedback from the community regarding the access to nature and that this will be a key area of focus.


Cllr Birnie commended the report and asked how many respondents are represented in charts, noting that this is not included within the report. Cllr Birnie referred to page 43, appendix 1, noting that this includes the numbers of respondents for each category and only added up to 430. Cllr Birnie queried if they had only taken on the views of 430 people to make their assumptions.


SWhelan confirmed that 430 survey responses were taken forward to analyse and that this was felt to be a good response. On the assumptions for the vision, SWhelan advised that these did not solely come from community consultations and are also from discussions with investors and considerations about opportunities for the town centre following the master plan 10 years ago.


DSoutham agreed with the need for flexibility within the document and why the plan remains at a high level. DSoutham stated that they need to be able to respond to market potential and other opportunities at any given time. On the consultation, DSoutham suggested that the level of engagement is relatively high for this stage in the process and that there will be further engagement as the delivery plans evolve.


Cllr Birnie suggested that 430 respondents out of a population of around 80,000 is not a respectable sample. Cllr Birnie agreed that the views of potential investors should be carried forward but that the electorate also needs to be brought forward, stating that officers may be reinforcing their own views without reference to the people that live in the area. Cllr Birnie referred to the strapline 'Hemel is a family of welcoming neighbourhoods' and suggested that this is not what the respondents believe, noting that on page 42, appendix 1, the pie charts show significant disagreements with this view. Cllr Birnie advised that he was not surprised by this response and that residents in his ward are completely neglected where the shopping centre has been described to him as 'like something left over from East Germany during the Soviet era' where elderly people are afraid to go out later in the evening. Cllr Birnie commented that these areas need to be addressed before considering the town centre.


The Chair commented that her understanding of the document is that it is to encourage investors and to promote the area, though the focus of the work also needs to be on what they are doing for their own community to improve things for residents, not just for investors.


JDoe advised that the consultation was carried out via a number of platforms, including a residents' group, business group and voluntary sector group, as well as the use of the Commonplace platform, an interactive mapping tool where residents can leave comments. JDoe explained that whilst the plan isn't exclusively for the investment community, they are a strong recipient and that they will not see real change in the town centre before investment is brought in. JDoe advised that the Council needs to be clear on what it expects to see and also needs a convincing narrative to bring this investment in. JDoe commented that the Council does not own much property in the town centre and that they are therefore working with the investment and development communities to shape the use of properties. JDoe noted that when consultants visited the town centre, they remarked on how green the area is and that this should be highlighted through the strapline.


Regarding neighbourhood centres, JDoe confirmed that these have not been forgotten and that the Hemel Spatial Vision document references neighbourhood centres across Hemel Hempstead. JDoe advised that DSoutham and SWhelan have been asked to look at this as part of the strategy and more information will come.


Cllr Birnie commented that the charts and the report contradict themselves. The Chair agreed with Cllr Birnie's comments and suggested they continue to monitor if they can address the tension between the promotional advertising and the reality.


Cllr Walker advised that he worked as a commercial agent in Hemel Hempstead for 20 years and that the town centre has changed beyond recognition. It was previously a business town and this has now gone. Cllr Walker suggested that the best views for office buildings are in Waterhouse Street looking over the park area, though it is different from the other side of the building. Cllr Walker commented on the large amount of concrete running through the centre of town and queried how many people will walk from the new town and old town, stating that it is too far and they are different entities. Cllr Walker stated that he was Chair of the BID and suggested that they use the data collected by BID. Cllr Walker noted that there is currently no night-time economy and there is no reason to come into the town centre at night, stating that places such as the bowling alley and cinema were taken out.


The Chair noted that a number of new restaurants are now opening in the area.


Cllr Walker suggested that the main issue for Hemel town centre is where the train station is situated.


Cllr Deacon commented that the documents do not focus on the amount of green space as much as they could.


Cllr Pringle responded to concerns raised by Cllr Birnie and suggested that the vision is part of a wider malaise, stating that residents and businesses can't just be viewed separately. Cllr Pringle voiced her concerns around the democratic deficit with a sense of alienation and that people feel they are not being consulted, advising that they therefore need to look at creating a new narrative and bringing people along with them. Cllr Pringle stated that the vision needs to be inclusive and should be based on serving residents.


Cllr Gale commented on the Hemel Vision Board and asked how board representation is decided. SWhelan advised that a report from April 2021 seeks permission to start Hemel Place work and to set up a board. SWhelan confirmed that they have looked at best practice from elsewhere and that feedback suggests there should be diversity from the public and private sectors as well as the community. SWhelan confirmed that she could circulate the terms of reference, noting that companies such as CAE have been brought onto the board as they are so proactively invested and that the third sector is also well represented. SWhelan suggested that the board composition is productive but that there are no set rules and any feedback on this would be welcomed.


Cllr Gale asked for a definition of the third sector. It was confirmed that this relates to charities.


Cllr Gale referred to the picture of how Bank Court could look and asked who decides on these and who owns the land. SWhelan advised that this is a vision. The Chair noted that it provides investors with an idea of how the area could look. SWhelan confirmed that the next step will be to engage with landowners


Cllr Gale commented that whilst it is a high-level vision, they also need to ensure they have a say on what happens in the town. Cllr Gale queried how the image of Bank Court was come up with. SWhelan explained that this was part of the Levelling Up Fund proposals with a bid put forward to central government for £10m and if they had been successful they would have gone through public consultation to seek the community's views on the vision.


A councillor commented that some of the Bank Court photos are at least two years out of date. It was also noted that Kodak is spelt incorrectly in the plan.


Cllr Anderson voiced his disagreement with the portrayal that the vision is brand new. Cllr Wilkie stated that this was an inappropriate comment at a scrutiny committee. The Chair agreed with Cllr Wilkie, noting that the councillor is free to voice his opinion but that the plan was not being presented as something that has been created in the last two months.


Cllr Anderson welcomed the strategy and stated that his support comes with two caveats that they monitor trying to attract leisure use in the centre and to ensure that external factors don't harm what the plan is looking to achieve.


Cllr Patterson referred to UKREiiF and asked for further information on how this was seen as a success. SWhelan advised that the success of the event was around increasing the profile of Hemel Hempstead and having a stand presence allowed for passing trade with detailed conversations with investors from Hong Kong and investors who are focused on London but are now looking at tertiary towns around the M25. SWhelan advised that the approach from a Hertfordshire wide point of view was very positive with the three investment towns across Hertfordshire being Stevenage, Watford and Hemel Hempstead, and that Hertfordshire as a whole county is well placed to capitalise on the filming industry, for example. SWhelan noted the importance of having a relationship with the Hertfordshire LEP and being willing to engage as a local authority. For 2024, Hertfordshire LEP would like to lead the expo of Hertfordshire and are looking at broader branding without losing the message of the three main investment towns. This will be seen as a wider benefit and will be a benefit to put in to get funding to increase their profile further. SWhelan advised around 50 contacts were made and are being followed up with one-to-one meetings and a number of contacts were made with consultants or agents, as well as networking contacts with other public sectors. SWhelan advised that they will likely take up a more senior cohort for 2024 and look to have one-to-one meetings as well as have a stand presence to increase their profile.


DSoutham commented on Hemel Place branding and that this significantly helped attract people to the stand at UKREiiF. DSoutham stated that the branding as well as the ambitions and aims of the vision were well received and that they are still following up on the 50 contacts made with further contacts that have been made since. DSoutham noted that they had received a lot of positive feedback, including from people who have lived in the area and know the town centre well.


Cllr Mitchell asked what percentage of the public they would hope to engage with, agreeing that more engagement is needed and that there needs to be greater community regeneration. Cllr Mitchell commented that they live in a neglected and socially deprived area and acknowledged that they need to attract investment to address this. Cllr Mitchell described Hemel Hempstead as a 'patchwork quilt', stating that there is a distinct lack of cohesion and that the positive work done in the Old Town and Water Gardens now needs to be replicated in other areas.


Cllr Gale referred to Cllr Mitchell's comments regarding a lack of cohesion, noting that the report highlights that 58% of respondents have a negative view of interaction between communities and that the town has poor nightlife with underdeveloped evening and leisure economies that fails to make the most of its natural assets. Cllr Gale then referred to page 123 of the report, noting the reference to the oversupply of retail and weak offering of sports, culture and restaurant facilities with Hemel Hempstead being the third weakest of 109 town centres. Cllr Gale supported Cllr Tindall's vision to transform Hemel Hempstead town centre into a thriving and busy leisure and cultural quarter with a mix of use and activities, stating that he also states that with fewer people coming into the town centre to work and shop, these locations need an alternative to attract locals and visitors from further afield.


Cllr Gale next looked to the aims regarding civic pride, the town centre, culture and leisure, and asked if there is any place for a sustainable community-based cultural centre in the new plan. Cllr Gale noted the possible replacement for the pavilion, stating that it was once a cultural centre, and suggested that a community arts organisation could provide cohesion. Cllr Gale advised that they are unusual in being a major town without a central arts venue, noting that the Hemel Vision Board is fairly commerce driven, and asked how much arts and culture are represented on the board.


The Chair referred to Dunstable, noting that they have an arts centre and drama school.


SWhelan responded to the earlier query regarding the consultation, noting that the document is not community-led and that there may be a degree of consultation fatigue with a consultation regarding the Old Town 4 months previously as well as a consultation piece around the Paradise Design Code area. SWhelan confirmed that there will be further community engagement and that this would be required if they attracted significant funding.


SWhelan noted the importance of arts and culture, stating that the Dacorum Creatives came from the Hertfordshire Year of Culture in 2020 and there is a live creative culture. The area's assets are strong in nature and biodiversity. SWhelan suggested that, as they bring communities closer and work with them in a more integrated way that they may find other themes, such as music, but they need to be authentic to what their groups currently are, which are currently arts and culture and biodiversity. As this is nurtured and as the Council looks outward to Tring that has strong assets, they can build relationships across the whole borough. SWhelan confirmed that they did consider a large bid to government for a cultural venue in the market square but that this was pushed back and therefore a priority in the delivery plan will be Hemel Imaginarium, which meanwhile uses a programme with good funding behind it from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Most of this will be held outside to allow culture and arts outside, and there may also be the taking over of vacant shops. SWhelan reassured members that arts and culture is a priority.


The Chair reminded officers of the need to bring the community along with them.


Cllr Pringle commented on the need to understand Hemel's identity and the importance of being authentic. Cllr Pringle acknowledged the borough's diverse communities and that this can be brought together through music. Cllr Pringle suggested that they need to be the catalyst for investment and make the most of the assets it already has, including the energy, enthusiasm and talent of local people, which will naturally help express the identity of people. Cllr Pringle suggested that they take the consultation to the people and better understand them, noting the impact they could see if they let people lead this with the oversight of the Council, and suggested that they look at a festival in the Water Gardens.


Cllr Wyatt-Lowe commented on the issues with the pavilion and that the decision was taken to demolish the pavilion with the aspiration to rebuild it. Cllr Wyatt-Lowe advised that whilst there isn't a formal arts centre, there is a strong cultural heritage in Hemel Hempstead and Dacorum that deserves an outlet. In 2008, the Council was in partnership with Thornfield and there was a well-developed plan for a theatre in the market square that would act as a multi-purpose centre, but the plan collapsed with the financial crash. Cllr Wyatt-Lowe noted that revenue is required to ensure the survival of venues.


Cllr Mitchell suggested that they should look to use open spaces and referred to Pub in the Park in St Albans and recommended that they look at how they use Gadebridge Park. Cllr Mitchell noted that the recent festivals in the park had been a success and that there is an appetite for music and the arts in Hemel Hempstead. The Chair suggested that the event was noisy for local residents.


Cllr Anderson advised that the pavilion cost the Council £200k to keep the building open every year and advised that it folded as the area can't compete with London. Cllr Anderson commented that many areas around London don't have arts venues because of this.


Cllr Anderson referred to previous place making consultations for Hemel Hempstead and stated that a performing arts venue has appeared low in the list of priorities with green, open spaces coming out as the top priority. Cllr Anderson acknowledged the wish for a performing arts venue but noted that it is not a high priority for constituents. Cllr Anderson commented that any performing arts venue will need to be viable. The Chair added that the space would need to be multi-use.


The Chair acknowledged the comments regarding the pavilion and having an arts space.


Cllr Walker commented on the arts centre in Aylesbury and noted the financial burden this is, which becomes more challenging as the building becomes older.


Cllr Walker advised that the town centre is primarily a retail high street and queried what types of investors they are looking for. Cllr Walker commented that the area would not necessarily attract high earners and suggested that the leisure plans for the Marlowes would bring a huge benefit to the town.


Cllr Gale commented on the brochure for Hemel Garden Communities, noting the image of what the public space will look like and queried the status of the public areas in these communities, whether these will be truly public or will be made private. The Chair advised that this was outside the scope of the discussion and that this could be addressed when looking at Hemel Garden Communities. SWhelan confirmed that the decision on whether the roads will be council-owned or private is yet to be made, and whilst the main highways are likely to be adopted, they have not yet been granted planning permission.


Cllr Pringle remarked that they are selling a post-pandemic vision of a post-pandemic town within commuting distance from London where they work, live and socialise. With people not commuting into London every day, this will bring the market into Hemel and this needs to be taken into account. Cllr Pringle suggested that what residents would previously have got from London now needs to be brought into the local area. Cllr Pringle commented that they could look for Hemel to become a centre for the arts and that it is an exciting time to focus on this post-pandemic.


The Chair asked the Committee if it felt it had received enough information to understand the Hemel Vision to take to Cabinet.


Cllr Patterson asked what the vision is for Market Square, suggesting that this is an area that requires detailed development.


Cllr Birnie commented that the vision appears to be too prescriptive and officer-driven, stating that it is too far removed from the people of Hemel Hempstead.


The Chair noted the changing demographic in Hemel Hempstead as people are being priced out of London, St Albans and Berkhamsted so are now looking at areas such as Boxmoor and Old Town. The Chair referred to the recent development of £1m homes on Green End Road and suggested that businesses look at the area to understand the demographic as there may be an incorrect perception of the current demographic.


JDoe confirmed that they would present the demographic data, noting that this is already available to view. The Chair queried how up to date this information is given the number of young professionals that have recently moved to the area.


JDoe thanked the Committee for its feedback and for looking at the vision in such detail. On the vision being officer-led, JDoe stated that the vision was put together by officers, but this is not in the absence of taking soundings from the community at different levels. Regarding the vision being described as too prescriptive, JDoe suggested that this is one of the least prescriptive documents that he has worked on as it is a vision, not a masterplan or planning development brief, and it aims to inspire ideas from the private sector if they are looking to take particular sites on. JDoe noted that they will be discussing regeneration plans with the new long leaseholders at Riverside and that these will be brought to the Council in due course. JDoe advised that as the Council doesn't own much property in the area, many controls will be through town planning, though they can use other tools such as design codes and scrutiny through the Development Management Committee.


JDoe referred to a previous question regarding membership of the Hemel Vision Board, noting that this is the Council's gift. A report went to Cabinet in 2021 that suggested certain groups for inclusion and that this can be expanded.


JDoe noted the feedback regarding arts and culture and raised that, as the place directorate develops over the coming months, they will be appointing a Head of Arts and Culture through the restructuring of DSoutham's area and this head of service will be tasked with driving this creative agenda across Dacorum. This person will have responsibility of the Old Town Hall and how to expand its reach.


JDoe explained that the vision is to help inspire confidence within the private sector and that they are in competition with other areas, so if they aren't confident as a place on what they have to offer then they will be unable to attract investment. JDoe noted that they are openly publishing data, including areas of weakness, and that they are looking to lead communities and businesses to help address these.


The Chair provided a summary, noting the people and those across Dacorum along with the vision. The Chair suggested that the portfolio holder and Cabinet consider whether a community representative be part of the Hemel Vision Board as well as someone who can also represent arts and culture. The Chair commented on the focus around arts and culture, though any actions around this need to be data-driven. The Chair noted that whilst travel was not discussed much by the Committee, they should look at ways to help connect areas, and that there should also be further information provided on regeneration of neighbourhood centres. Looking at further engagement, the Chair suggested that all members receive a briefing on what Hemel Hempstead has to offer to ensure consistency across members.


Cllr Mitchell raised a point regarding youth facilities in the town centre to help prevent anti-social behaviour, which may potentially be on the increase. A councillor commented on the shutting down of Quasar during the pandemic and advised that a bowling alley and other youth facilities would make Hemel Town Centre a more positive place as young people currently have nothing to do. The Chair agreed, noting that this also links to civil pride.


Cllr Mitchell asked if social media groups are being used to gather feedback. The Chair agreed that this would help engage members.


The Chair noted that any further feedback could be submitted to SWhelan.


Supporting documents: