Letchworth means business
PUBLISHED: 12:16 02 December 2014 | UPDATED: 12:16 02 December 2014
Letchworth is poised to enter a new era thanks to the creation of its Business Improvement District. Patsy Hudson looks at the task ahead
Newcomers to Letchworth might be forgiven for wondering who has been running the world’s first garden city. There is no town clerk. No mayor. Not even a city council. It hasn’t seemed to have bothered the residents, many of whom can trace their roots back three generations in the model settlement founded more than 100 years ago by the forward-thinking philanthropist Ebenezer Howard.
Any mutterings they have had probably concerned a lack of variety in the shops. But the residents balance that with being spoilt for choice by clubs and societies to join, courses to attend, places to eat, live entertainment and good in-city and inter-city transport.
Those shopaholics who do prefer to seek out the big brands console themselves about Letchworth’s lack of big stores by heading for Hertfordshire’s second garden city, Welwyn, or elsewhere, where shops – and sometimes the railway stations – are under the same roof. Letchworth’s new Business Improvement District (BID) is out to change all that.
Recognising that persuading people to shop ‘in-town’ requires a concerted effort by those whose livelihood is being damaged by shoppers heading elsewhere. The group is putting its money where its mouth is, preparing to spend nearly £750,000 drawn from members’ contributions over the next five years, with this year’s budget of £135,000 rising by £4,000 a year as projects come on-stream.
The BID is headed by business executive director Kailah Eglington, who will be joined next month by James Peachey, who takes on the job of business operations director. Other members are drawn from the Garden City Heritage Foundation, North Herts District Council, Hertford County Council, North Herts College and the Garden Square Shopping Centre.
The BID’s brief is to plan for the Letchworth of the future while adhering to the vision of its founder. This can best be summarised in Howard’s own words. Writing in 1902 in his mould-breaking Garden Cities of Tomorrow, he said, ‘There are not only two alternatives – town and country life – but a Third Alternative, in which the advantages of the most energetic and active town life with all the beauty and delight of the country may be secured in perfect combination...Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together’.
Taking on the task of protecting Howard’s dream while supporting the BID’s vision for the town of the future is the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, under whose auspices many events take place. Says Eglington, ‘The foundation is not a brake on the town’s development, but an integral and enthusiastic part of the BID. It is having the foundation on board that makes the Letchworth BID plans different from other towns’ strategies for improving business.’
Among the other members, North Herts District Council is responsible for all the practical aspects of the BID; Hertfordshire County Council will contribute its expertise in specialised areas such as access, especially highways, while North Herts College has the special portfolio to provide for the youth of the town – the main shopping defectors. Letchworth’s business community is represented by the Garden Square Shopping Centre, placed next to the multi-storey car-park and accessible easily by bus.
The initial stages of the BID’s five-year plan are already under way, under the declared mission ‘to restore and sustain the economic strength and vitality of Letchworth Garden City town centre’. As Eglington points out, ‘It’s not a rescue mission, but a strategic plan.’
Actions taken so far include organising events and promotions, training for small business staff, marketing activities, a new website and – under the heading of Business Incubation – a ‘business buddies’ system and skills database. Eglington explains, ‘Letchworth needs a bigger footfall. The growth of online shopping has put many of the smaller business under pressure, although some small specialist shops are thriving. It’s encouraging that those who are doing well are giving up their time to share their secrets with their less successful ‘buddies’.
One thing that has made a difference to shopping in Letchworth since the BID went into action is the arrival of lifts at the station, a long-awaited event the new business activists are hoping will help tempt out-of-towners to sample the wares of the town where all shops are within walking distance of the terminus. Residents and visitors are looking forward to many more initiatives under Letchworth’s new vision for the future.