Carwyn’s Six Point Plan for Bridgend Town Centre

Following the launch of a Conservative-backed petition on de-pedestrianising part of Bridgend town centre, the debate over the town centre’s future continues unabated in the letters section of the Glamorgan Gazette.

Little of consequence has been said so far. However, in last week’s edition there was an intervention by the First Minister in his capacity as Bridgend AM, so much so it’s worth further examination. He has, of course, done something similar before (Answering Carwyn’s Call).

In his letter, Carwyn Jones outlined six issues he believes needs to be addressed in Bridgend and offered brief ideas on what can be done.

1. De-pedestrianising Queen Street, Dunraven Place and lower Market Street.

Carwyn “agrees in principle” with the idea, but says further work is needed to ensure the needs of the disabled – particularly the partially-sighted – are properly taken into consideration, also to ensure it wouldn’t become a rat-run or over-congested by drivers seeking limited parking spots (see also: Pedestrianisation Petition & Heritage Hub Plans).

: Nothing to argue with. Something that needs to be made clear, however, is that the route is already open to traffic between 6pm-10am, can become particularly busy at 8-9am and already includes things like drop kerbs. Carwyn’s constituency office is nearby so he should be aware of that even if, admittedly, some extra work would be needed.

You can understand BCBC’s caution because they don’t want to be on the end of a compensation claim if there were an accident, but figures of up to £100,000 have been quoted for a “consultant’s study” into the impact of de-pedestrianisation and other works – and people wonder why the public sector has such a bad rep when it comes to procurement.

2. Deciding Bridgend’s unique selling point (USP)

He said traders and residents need to decide “what sort of town Bridgend should be”, and cited the street events as something to build upon.

Comment : This is a broader issue and something most towns are trying to figure out for themselves. Bridgend’s in an awkward position because it’s big enough to have a catchment area of its own and is a major industrial and service centre in its own right – so it’s not a “sleepy market town” any more and some residents with fond memories of what the town used to be like have to take off the rose-tinted glasses. At the same time it’s too small to punch at the same level as similarly-sized urban areas like Wrexham and Hereford.

Bridgend could use that to its advantage, and I’d argue that some of those advantages include the relatively dense urban core, Georgian architecture and the fairly large number of independent retailers. There’s also the makings of a potentially excellent night-time economy, with a few upmarket wine and cocktail bars appearing recently and a fairly decent food and drink offer for a town of Bridgend’s size.

It’s the national chain stores that are letting the town centre down as the current mix doesn’t properly reflect the wealth in the town’s catchment area, particularly the western Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend’s suburbs.

3. Rethinking shop opening hours.

The old 9am-5pm model is outdated as it was based around stay-at-home mothers and women not being in full-time employment. He suggests new opening hours of 11am-7pm to prevent it seeming as if the whole town shuts down.

Comment : This is an interesting one, and it’s true that everything in Bridgend seems to stop by 6pm (except the pubs, bars and restaurants). Staggered opening hours might help, but there could be issues there; for example some employees might not want to work beyond 5pm if they have young children.

4. Shop conversions.

There’s a need for more full-time office workers in the town centre, as too many of the stores are too small for modern retail and would be better suited to other uses.

Comment : Another good point, but how many businesses would consider the small floor spaces available in Bridgend town centre attractive? There’ve been some high-quality office developments in the town recently – particularly HD Ltd’s Elder Mews, which is now occupied by a new car park, Herbert R Thomas, Costa and a solicitors. These are modest developments, but much better than what was there before and quietly impressive; similarly the new boutique hotel/restaurant at Cae Court. Other buildings could be properly renovated or redeveloped, like Wyndham House, the Old Post Office buildings on Court Road and Derwen Road, in the medium-term the police station too….

If some of the big office-based employers presently located at the industrial estates could be enticed into the town centre that would improve things, but the high quality Grade A offices aren’t there at the moment (aside from Raven’s Court) and, to be honest, Bridgend will never compete with Cardiff and Swansea there. Plus there’s the problem of too few parking spaces to accommodate workers, but one of Bridgend’s other key advantages is the central location of the bus and railway stations. So office development in the town centre could be considered “sustainable”.

Conversion into homes rather than offices would be a better bet as Bridgend currently lacks 1 and 2 bedroom homes and apartments.

In terms of significantly increasing football, the only type of retail development that could do that would be a department store/entertainment-led one of the same scale of Friars Walk in Newport or St Catherine’s Walk in Carmarthen. The problem there is we already have McArthur Glen Outlet/The Pines to fulfil that role despite being located out of town.

5. Take advantage of online trading.

The major supermarkets are “too convenient” due to longer opening hours, and the fact more people choose to shop late in the evening and on Sundays. Effectively, he suggests more retailers in Bridgend should have the means to sell goods online if they don’t already do so.

Comment : One idea, my brother’s rather, is to have a single website covering all of Bridgend’s town centre retailers – but particularly the smaller and independent ones – where you can order or reserve items then pick up from the shop when convenient (click and collect). This means people would still be able to use online shopping, but from local stores. It has an advantage as you wouldn’t incur delivery charges and could probably pick stuff up the same day or within hours – meaning no drop in footfall.

6. Flexibility from landlords.

There are some “good and committed” landlords in Bridgend town centre, but there are absentee ones too. Carwyn suggests using short-term rents of up to three months to allow prospective traders to “dip their toes in the water” rather than minimum 12-month contracts. Many of these “pop-up” shops could become long-term ones with the right support.

Comment : I don’t know enough about the commercial rental market in Bridgend to judge properly, but having scanned a few estate agents, some of the rents verge on extortionate for what are shoebox-sized stores and offices. Pop-up stores might go some way towards reducing the number of empty premises – particularly during busy periods like the run-up to Christmas – but having a high turnover of here today, gone tomorrow shops might make the town centre appear even more run-down.

Having said that, there’s no point in Bridgend trying to be another Cowbridge. We should embrace the “edge” and offer something to all social groups instead of attempting to over-gentrify things.

So, any other suggestions? – Free car parking? A loyalty scheme? Local currency?