This is Wokingham at lunchtime. It’s deserted. If we want our town to thrive, parking MUST be free during regeneration works
WOKINGHAM is an historic market town. It’s packed with interesting, unique and diverse shops.
We love the town centre, just as we love every corner of the borough.
It always rates highly in the best places to live in the UK, and for good reason: that strong sense of community, some great facilities and unique events such as the May Fayre and Winter Carnival.
Our retail centres are very different to Reading or Bracknell.
Smaller shops, often run by independent businesses who offer interesting things that you will struggle to find elsewhere. Not only that, but a wealth of knowledge that you can tap into.
Yes, it’s easy to mock the centre for being full of estate agents, coffee shops and nail bars, but there’s far more to it than that.
Right now, Wokingham town centre needs some love. It needs your love. Your support.
And it needs ways to make your support as easy as possible.
With the Market Place works taking place right now, the centre looks like a building site, not a place for retail therapy. Because that’s exactly what it is. A building site.
You need an incentive to keep calm and keep on shopping. At the moment, it looks very much like there is no reason to come into Wokingham.
Road closures make it a misery for motorists. The pollution hangs in the air and confusion over what is or isn’t open lingers.
We need to be shouting about more than the end destination – regeneration is for the benefit of all of us and the short-term pain will be worth it.
At the same time, the need right now is for the borough council to step up and showcase what makes Wokingham special.
Quite frankly, it is not doing anywhere near enough to highlight and encourage trade during these regeneration works. With The Lexicon opening today, it looks as if Wokingham Borough Council has rolled over and died rather than mounted a campaign to get residents shopping in the town centre (and, we add, Woodley and Twyford for that matter).
Instead we have a few town councillors and town council officers stepping up and stepping in, banging the drum for a town that offers so much but is being loved so little.
Retailers are struggling. They are seeing footfall plummet. Takings are well down. Rates are changing. And some feel short-changed and let down by their borough councillors.
So radical action is needed, and it’s needed now.
What is the solution?
Well, The Lexicon is going to attract a lot of people. Bracknell Forest Council is hoping it will be something like 14 million people in its first year.
That’s vastly superior to the 20,000 or so who will come to Wokingham for the Winter Carnival or the May Fayre.
If the town centre is to stay alive on the long journey to 2020 and the brave new dawn of the completed works, then Wokingham Borough Council needs to do something now.
The quickest, easiest and most sensible win is simple: axe parking charges across the borough’s car parks until the regeneration is bedded in.
Our suggestion is for the first four hours of any stay in any borough car park to be free. That’s enough time for people to come in, shop, enjoy a coffee or have a bite to eat.
And after 6pm and on Sundays, there should be no charge at all.
When the plans to introduce evening car park charges were mooted last year, we said at the time it was the wrong decision. Nothing has changed our minds since.
The borough council will argue that car park usage remains high, but that is not being translated into footfall in the town centre. Our photos show exactly the damage being wrecked right now: taken on Monday lunchtime, the centre should be buzzing with office workers getting lunch or shoppers searching for back to school bargains.
Instead, it’s a ghost town. Tables in cafés are empty. Only a handful of people are braving the bulldozers.
If this carries on, big name retailers will be wondering if they would be better off joining Marks & Spencer in The Lexicon and small retailers will either shut up shop or make redundancies.
And those decisions will be made quickly, not slowly.
We cannot countenance a further decline in Wokingham’s fortunes before it gets better – action must be taken and it must be taken immediately.
Make it Free to P is our campaign. For the good of our borough, that’s exactly what has to happen, and it has to happen now.