West Berkshire Council Weeknotes #66
To mark his retirement, Chief Executive Nick Carter has used his final Weeknote to reflect on his 24 years spent at West Berkshire Council.
I joined West Berkshire in January 1998, a few months before it came into being. A quick trawl of the internet (to help jog my memory) revealed nothing overly interesting was happening nationally at the time. Spiceworld was on at the cinema and the Teletubbies were riding high in the charts.
1998 was however a notable year for West Berkshire and in particular Newbury. In September the Newbury Bypass opened and Northbrook Street was subsequently pedestrianised. Those with longer memories than me (and of a greater vintage) will recall the opening of another Newbury Bypass in 1966. The then A34 (now A339) opened to relieve through traffic which used to come down Northbrook Street and over the Town Bridge.
Roads, traffic and Newbury seemed to be a major feature of my early years in West Berkshire. The opportunities provided by the new Bypass, coupled with concerns over Newbury's slide down the national retail league table, led to the Newbury 2025 Vision. There was a sense that something needed to be done but not always agreement as to what. The need for a new shopping centre was perhaps the most widely accepted proposal. Attempts to regenerate the Parkway area of the Town had started in the 1980s but the complex land ownerships across the site had thwarted progress. It was the 'No 1 project' when the 2025 Vision got underway in the early part of the new century and in 2008 Standard Life finally agreed to push ahead only weeks before the Financial Crisis of that year hit the world. The Town is lucky to have the asset.
The Cinema was borne from a ground swell of community action. The debate focused around where to put it - in the town centre or outside? The decision to locate it in the town centre was in my view the right one. If town centres are to remain a focus for economic and social activity then leisure will surely need to be part of the mix. The compromise was that it had to be built on a rather constrained site.
Pedestrianisation split local opinion when it was introduced in 1998 and today that seems to continue. It has been extended over the years and Newbury now has one of the most extensively pedestrianised town centres in the country. The area has been enhanced over time, including the refurbishment of the Market Place. Many complained at the loss of the car park at the time but Newbury now has a very attractive market square for residents and visitors alike to enjoy. I think more needs to be made of it although the typical British summer has not helped!
The urban village development in Market Street took 13 years to make happen but as many of you may have seen it is now finally 'coming out of the ground'. The urban myth that the Council gave the land away is not true. A new bus station and a new multi storey car park have been created and money has also been received to help fund new affordable housing. Perhaps most importantly Newbury will get new homes and a very attractive link between the railway station and the town centre - something that has been missing for many years.
The regeneration of the London Road Industrial Estate has been the subject of a great deal of debate. The new road junction off the A339 has provided the opportunity to support a new development that will create jobs and homes for many years to come. In my view the whole area remains something of an eye sore and sits uncomfortably with Victoria Park and Parkway on the other side of the A339. Hopefully over the coming decade it can be transformed into something that compliments the Town. Perhaps the BT exchange building on Bear Lane could be wrapped up into the same enhancement programme!
I was outside Newbury Library last week when a gentleman came up to me and said that the town's main asset has still yet to be capitalised on - the K and A. He was right. Other towns along the Canal have seen what water can do to add to the attractiveness of their area. In my opinion the main opportunity lies at the Wharf and the return of water basins in front of both the Museum and Library. Attempts have been made to pull that off but have been scuppered largely because of cost and concerns over the impact on Victoria Park. If people are going to spend less time shopping in town centres then it seems Newbury's canals, rivers, green spaces and its surrounding countryside are some of its hidden gems that need to be made more of. Given all of these challenges and those posed by the current Pandemic the emergence of a new Newbury masterplan seems very timely.
With such a focus on Newbury I would not want to leave you with the impression that I have failed to meet my responsibilities to the rest of West Berkshire whilst I have been Chief Executive. Aside from the Pandemic, flooding has probably been one of the biggest challenges the District has faced in recent years. The 2007 floods left 1500 homes under water - 1000 in Thatcham. A great deal of work has been done since then to protect the Town and I must pay tribute to the Town Council, residents and West Berkshire Council staff who have dedicated time and resources to making that happen.
My thanks also to all of those communities that have worked tirelessly over the years to make West Berkshire a better place. Visions, parish plans and neighbourhood development plans have all played their part but at the end of the day it is the people on the ground who have made the difference. I hope you feel that the Council has been there if you have needed us.
When looking back there is an inevitable tendency to focus on what you might see as the big achievements and challenges, I have highlighted some of those already, however much of my time, and that of my staff, has been focused on providing some 400 or so different services that many residents need from the Council at various stages in their life. As Chief Executive my primary aim over the past 16 years has been to try and improve the effectiveness of those services whilst at the same time managing with a shrinking budget in real terms. It some areas we have had to stop providing some services altogether or we have asked others to assist with their delivery. In the main though we have generally seen our services improve as evidenced both by data and independent inspections.
That said we do not always get it right and I will have emails daily from residents who need our assistance or who feel we should have done more. My greatest satisfaction though comes from being able to put such things right as well as reading emails from residents who are grateful for us having gone the extra mile.
One of the positives to come from the Pandemic has been the realisation that as a Council we need to get better at communicating with, and engaging our communities. This Weeknote is but one example but it is an approach that will remain when hopefully Covid-19 is far behind us.
Looking forward I have no doubt that West Berkshire will remain a great place in which to live, work and visit. Its inherent assets will surely guarantee that. There is however more to do. We need to build more affordable homes and address the inequalities that exist between our communities, and which have widened during the Pandemic. We also need to recognise and respond to the fact that West Berkshire's population will get increasingly older over the coming years - and of course we need to do a great deal more to address climate change.
I will not be around for that journey, but I wish those who are, every success. To those who have shared my West Berkshire journey over the past 24 years - thank you.