It's time to think outside of the box.
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
Seven weeks ago, we took the brave steps to give up our full time, secure jobs and started up Daffodil PR & Communications. We did this because we were fed up with people talking down Taunton and the wider South West. Simply, we wanted to do something to try and help our area to get the positive recognition it deserves.
We read with interest last week’s Somerset County Gazette article, ‘Town Centre Crisis’ and wanted to share our thoughts.
Last week, we were lucky enough to be invited to attend a ‘Smart Cities Conference’, hosted by The Telegraph in London. The title of the conference was, “Driving Sustainability in Infrastructure, Financing and Community Engagement’ – particularly relevant to Taunton Deane at this current time. Faced with the challenges of outdated infrastructure, data silos and ineffective financing, local authorities across the UK are under immense pressure to future-proof their services.
The event, chaired by Dan Byles, former Conservative MP for North Warwickshire, was the fourth of its kind and the only one that focuses on connecting the UK’s Council and private sector leaders to drive innovation in frontline services. Surprisingly, we were the only representatives from the whole of Somerset!
We are not Councillors, we don’t work for a local authority – we are the owners of a new business, and we care deeply about the area we live in.
The front page of last week’s paper was depressing. Of course, we all know these are challenging times for Taunton due to the increase in online shopping and the slow decline of High Streets nationally. Taunton is not facing this issue alone. Our major cities, including London, are facing the same issues as we are, including empty shops, homelessness and massive pressure on Council budgets. The one thing that other local authorities appear to be doing is working collaboratively with the private sector and putting politics aside for the greater good of the area.
As mentioned in last week’s article, it’s abundantly clear to anyone walking around Taunton that we have a number of empty shops. Sadly, that is a pattern that is echoed across the whole of the UK – and we can blame the Council as much as we like, but the bottom line is that Taunton needs to re-establish itself as a County Town that we can all be proud of and that businesses want to invest in. We may have less empty shops than the UK average, but one empty shop is too many. We should not be complacent, and our Council should be continuously striving to ensure new business comes to Taunton.
It’s no secret that across the Borough, there has been a huge decline in the pride we take in our area – with negative comments appearing in the press and on social media time and time again. Taunton Deane Borough Council’s (TDBC) focus has been taken up with the formation of the ‘New Council’ and Somerset County Council’s (SCC) Leaders have been battling with rising costs in social care and ever decreasing budgets from Central Government. What is becoming increasingly clear to us, is that there is a desperate need for more joined up working across not only our two-tier Council, but between the public sector, private sector and most importantly, the people that live and work across the area.
One of the highlights from the conference that really stood out to us was the direct link between a quality town centre with innovative technology and forward thinking, and the health and wellbeing of the citizens that live and work there.
We all know that recently in Taunton, local politicians rallied together to convince TDBC to step in and manage Taunton’s Park and Ride service until September 2019, taking over the liability from SCC who no longer have the finances to support it. However our belief, albeit controversial, is that an effective park and ride should be self-funding and should not need propping up by any tier of local Government.
Perhaps now is the time for the Council to engage with residents across Taunton Deane and ask the simple, yet important question – “do you use the park and ride?” We fear that the majority, if they answer truthfully, will say, ‘no’.
Of course, as a local authority TDBC need to invest in transport. However, the Council needs to ensure it is investing in transport services that will actually be used. Our transport offer must meet the specific needs of citizens for it to be viable. Of course, we appreciate that Local Government is facing difficult times. We all want the best adult and children’s social care, the most innovative transport services and a thriving town centre, but to achieve all of this, our Councils must work collaboratively with each other, and with the private sector. A more joined-up, business focussed strategy should be implemented now.
One of the speakers, Julie Snell, Managing Director of ‘Bristol Is Open’, said, ‘if you want to know what’s wrong with an area, ask the people that live there”. This seems so obvious, yet very few people across Taunton Deane feel as though they’re listened to. Public engagement events do, of course, happen – but too often, they are merely just a ‘tick box’ exercise. The people in power have to listen to their residents. Whether it refers to a planning application or a cut in services, the people directly affected are those who, more often than not, have the most valuable insight.
Taunton is the County Town of Somerset and we need to get its identity and positivity back. Taunton needs to create a strong and positive brand for itself to attract much needed investment and to make our town centre thrive again. We simply need to find a reason for visitors and investors to want to come here, stay here and spend money here. Taunton has lots to offer, with strong transport links, great sporting facilities and beautiful countryside. Not only this, but we have a plethora of both national and independent shops located in our town centre such as Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Hatchers, Mr Miles Tea Room, Jojo Maman Bébé, Joules, Jack Wills, Crew Clothing etc. – and not forgetting Bath Place, the Riverside area, Station Road, East Reach and the vast array of cafes and restaurants on offer.
We, of course, all know that Taunton is home to the Somerset County Cricket Ground, but we mustn’t forget the other sports that contribute to our local economy. Taunton Town Football Team, found at the Viridor Stadium are the top of their game, competing in the Southern League Premier Division South and winning games left, right and centre. Yet, on Saturday, they had just 450 spectators in a ground that has a capacity of 3,000. We attended the game and left feeling immensely proud of our town and the team, with a 4-0 win. Why not try it for yourselves!
Taunton also boasts the Brewhouse Theatre, the Tacchi Morris and the Wellsprings Centre, all of which put on a diverse array of arts and entertainment shows for local people. At the Smart Cities conference, Helen Marriage, co-founder of the Artichoke Trust spoke of the importance and benefits of Arts and Culture in our communities, saying, ‘Art is something that may be there one day and gone the next, but it will be remembered for a lifetime.’ With the backing of the London Mayor, the Artichoke Trust produced the iconic Lumiere light festival in London in January this year. Lumiere 2018 brought over one million people into the city of London. The direct link between the Arts, and health and wellbeing was also highlighted by many. We’re still hoping there may be an iconic structure built as part of the future plans for Taunton, to attract more visitors and further boost the local economy. This is something, ArtsTaunton, headed up by Kit Chapman MBE is rightly pushing for.
In short, the message from the Smart Cities Conference was that our Councils need to engage with their citizens, and that we need to work together, take risks and think outside of the box. In Taunton, we must showcase ourselves as a County Town to be proud of – somewhere that is thriving, interesting to visit and a positive place to live and work. However, we won’t get there by complaining and talking the area down. We currently have the opportunity of a lifetime with the Firepool site and our recent Garden Town Status, but our Councils and people in authority must ensure they listen to their residents about what we want and need for these projects. We don’t want to waste this opportunity and end up with something that will further damage our town centre.
As Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook famously said, ‘in a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.’
As ever, to get in touch with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.