Report on Leighton Buzzard town centre lays out plan to ensure future 'brimming with vitality'

'I hope and pray that this is going to be the beginning of what's a wonderful and very exciting future'

By Joanna Gravett
Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 12:22 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 12:37 pm

Plans are afoot to form a new partnership group that aims to make Leighton Buzzard town centre a thriving, cultural hub.

A report has been produced for Leighton-Linslade Town Council which details the high street's strengths and weaknesses, as well as listing ways it could improve and ensure its future as "a multifunctional core, brimming with vitality."

The council commissioned IntoPlaces Ltd, an independent town centre consultancy, to analyse Leighton Buzzard's options, which also held a workshop for local politicians and key stakeholders.

Leighton Buzzard Market Cross.

Gennaro Borrelli, chairman of LB First and the FSB Leighton Buzzard Retail Special Interest Group, attended the meeting.

He said: "They were lovely people, it was great. They ran a very good workshop.

"IntoPlaces have been through a similar experience themselves. One of them used to be the leader of a local authority up north, so they have a good background and experience.

"They were telling us about the process that they went through to make the necessary changes in town and how they went about it.

"Some things are easy, while others are a little bit more medium and long term."

The report praised Leighton Buzzard for performing above the national trends in terms of better than average footfall and vacancy rates, remarking upon its "well maintained heritage" and "historic character", smaller independent cafes and restaurants, activities and promotional campaigns, digital platform for businesses and free town WIFI.

However, it noted that the shopping centre (Waterborne Walk) was not faring as well, and that the cafes and restaurants did "not seem to attract the family market/younger age groups".

Other points included: the public realm and good pedestrian links "did not appear to be capturing as much of the wider catchment area", that the market wasn't appealing as much to the 25-34 age bracket, and that there was a "lack of community, creative arts and leisure facilities".

Talking about suggested improvements, Mr Borrelli said: "Ideas were put forward about having some sort of community hub, a multi-functional space for community and groups for art and culture and leisure.

"You could also look at specialty markets to engage with younger age groups and run workshops for teenagers who could have a go at running a stall as a start-up business."

He added: "There were ideas about COP26 and climate change and thinking about how the town could cut down on waste completely and how we could encourage people to use public transport. For example, there could be a residents bus pass, which you could purchase and use for as many journeys as you like."

21 people attended the workshop, including town council members, a local police inspector, and representatives from Central Bedfordshire Council, the Leighton Buzzard Society, and the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity. It is now hoped that a partnership can be formed.

The report said: "In order to establish a multifunctional core brimming with vitality, we would recommend that the Town Council, together with Central Bedfordshire Council, work together, to take a leadership role in bringing the key stakeholders from the town together to devise an action plan and help make change happen.

"It is vital that as many people and organisations are invested and take wider ownership of the town and this process, as it cannot be the single role of the council to do this."

At a meeting of the town council's Policy and Finance Committee, its members agreed to share the report's information with Central Bedfordshire Council and to seek direction on how it proposed to progress.

Mr Borrelli added: "Thank you to Leighton-Linslade Town Council for taking the initiative and starting the process.

"I hope and pray that this is going to be the beginning of what's a wonderful and very exciting future."

Leighton-Linslade Town Councillor, Clive Palmer, said: "All this has arisen from the Town Council’s determination to encourage the future development of the High Street and Town Centre, especially post-Covid, into a vibrant area which is of maximum future relevance and use for residents and visitors.

"The report is encouraging in that it acknowledges that we are starting from a relatively favourable base, in that the town centre is an attractive, historic area and is currently performing better than the national average in terms of footfall and vacancy rates. However, the report did identify (in most cases confirm!) areas which will need attention if the full potential of the town centre is to be realised into the future. This included enhancing the visitor experience to more than just retail, to take in things such as health, fitness and leisure aspects, entertainment and cultural offerings, with a more family friendly environment which also appeals to a younger age group.

"Clearly, this is a wide-ranging report and the elements identified in it would cover different agencies with varied responsibilities, commercial and other interests, as well as the views and aspirations of our own residents and businesses.

"The Town Council remains determined to do what it can to promote beneficial development in the Town Centre. One important aspect of this has been the work undertaken so far by a separate Town Council led group, in conjunction with Central Bedfordshire and others, to try and promote the development of the Land South of the High Street which is so critical to the future health of the High Street and town centre, and which may help address points raised in the IntoPlaces report. A new Working Group is set to commence activity in January to carry this work forward and one of the earliest points for consideration will be the inclusion of other bodies and interests who can help shape this future development to the benefit of all."