Following a series of “strategic” studies in 2018, the Government confirmed that St Neots had been selected as one of the towns to be awarded a grant from the Future High Street Fund (“FHSF”) for its town centre regeneration. That was in 2019.
Since then, on the basis of 6 identified projects - the redevelopment of the Old Falcon Inn and the Priory Centre, and improvements to the Market Square, the High Street, the Bridge and the Waterfront - an FHSF award of £5.9 million has been confirmed and the Combined Authority, HDC and National Highways have added their contributions bringing the total available funding to just over £16 million. Good news!
But where are we in mid-2022? A year ago HDC commissioned further studies and a public consultation that asked “what sort of town we wanted to live in” - a question you may have thought would have been addressed in the strategic studies. And that’s it! Voters and LibDem councillors have heard no more about the plans and, if indeed there are any, they are shrouded in secrecy.
I am one of our candidates standing for election in the St Neots Eatons ward and have acted in a professional capacity as an adviser on development and regeneration to public and private organisations in the UK and overseas for over 30 years. It is my view that hopes may have been raised prematurely and, possibly, falsely. From the information that I have been able to gather, admittedly limited, and my experience of similar schemes, I am doubtful that the 6 projects are capable of being implemented - at least within the near future and without considerable technical and financial ingenuity.
The first barrier is the Falcon Inn. The owner, who has sat on the property for nearly two decades, is probably seeking a ransom price. HDC may be thinking about running a Compulsory Purchase Order (“CPO”) so that it can take over the site and settle the price at a later date, expecting it to be based on its value in its current state prior to any regeneration works. CPO is a very lengthy, costly and risky legal process that will only succeed if HDC can demonstrate that the regeneration scheme cannot proceed unless it includes the subject property – that may well not be the case because it does not stand in the way of the other 5 projects. The next barrier may be the new waterfront route as for this it will be necessary to move and rebuild the Rowing Club in a new location - taking both time and money before a stone is laid. Other than the bi-weekly market, the retail offering of St Neots is utilitarian so, if new entrants to the High Street are persuaded to take up space, rather than simply providing better shop and office buildings, the town needs to create a distinct identity that increases footfall from residents and visitors. Establishing the Priory Centre as a cultural hub is a laudable objective but there are constraints to the size and configuration of the building as it presently exists that might limit the scope of prospective theatre and music production. Moreover, it may also be difficult to combine community activities with the requirements of professional arts organisations. Of course, if successful, it will help give St Neots the character needed to enliven the High Street - but it won’t happen overnight.
I do not think the above problems are insurmountable and there are tried and trusted solutions that could be appropriate in the right circumstances. However, before suggesting, even tentatively, what they could be, we, whether in control of HDC or in opposition, want to investigate the status of each project to ascertain the reasons for the apparent lack of progress. Responses to the following questions would be a start:-
- What specific development options are being considered? What are the priorities and what happens if the funding is insufficient for a comprehensive scheme?
- How is private sector investment being attracted and over what period of time?
- What is the status of any negotiations with site owners and tenants?
- What are the proposals for physical infrastructure, public transport links and for minimising car usage?
- How are life cycle costs (repair, replacement and maintenance) and operating costs being funded?
- To what extent is the natural environment and ecology of the development area being protected and enhanced?
- What is the target market for a redeveloped Priory Centre and does it align with the proposed design and cost budget?
- Is the delivery of a comprehensive scheme really possible by March 2024, the date at which it is supposed to be completed?
- How much of the funding has been set aside for a dedicated delivery organisation, a professional design team and other advisers?
Every day that goes by without answers is another day of lost opportunities for St Neots and its residents. We need to find out what on earth is going on.