A new vision for revitalising Accrington town centre has been exclusively unveiled to the Observer by the Conservative opposition.
Tory group leader and Barnfield ward councillor Tony Dobson says his group has a series of ambitious plans to reverse the fortunes of the struggling town centre – including focusing the town’s retail offer around ‘craft, vintage, antique, arty, retro’ themes and offering council tax discounts for people who shop locally.
But he says he is not playing political games by drawing up the alternative proposals, and has offered the ideas freely to council leader Miles Parkinson for the ruling group to implement if they so choose.
The Observer revealed last month that Coun Parkinson is urging traders to ‘do their bit’ to help the town following a council report which said that the private sector is ‘not proportionally matching public sector investment’ after nearly £22 million was brought in for renovations to the market, town hall, train station and the creation of a new bus station and town hall square.
Coun Dobson says their vision for Accrington rests on crafting its own niche in East Lancashire around ‘craft, vintage, antique, arty, retro’ themes.
He said: “Having surveyed the town, about 17 per cent of the businesses in Accrington town centre already fit that profile in one way or another so that is a starter for ten. This is about finding a niche where we can attract Hyndburn and Pennine Lancashire visitors to the town.
“We do want to work with the Arndale to get some of the multi-national companies in but my gut feeling is that Accrington doesn’t have the footfall or the demographic to persuade people like Primark to come in.
“Our vision would be to go back to the old market floral town, having our unique selling point is us trying to get Accrington town centre to seven day a week trading, and to get to that we need to be able to attract the grey pound.
“Additionally I’d like to see 40 major events a year in the town centre and bring in over 200,000 people a year. Anything from classic car shows to 10km cycle rides or runs.”
Coun Dobson is proposing a new mobile phone app which would track goods being stocked in Accrington shops, and residents who shop in the town would get council tax bill discounts.
He said: “Just by shopping in the town centre you get five per cent of whatever you spend off your rates, and it would also keep you up to date with offers in Accrington town centre.
“Everyone hates paying council tax, and this would give that incentive to engage with the town.”
He added: “We will ban from the daytime economy anybody with a conviction for shoplifting and from the nighttime economy anybody with a conviction for causing trouble, to hopefully again create a positive environment for people to visit.”
As part of the Conservative plan, they are also exploring transforming Cafe Amsterdam into a pop-up restaurant venue.
“We want to work with the owners of that property and Accrington and Rossendale college. The college are very excited about the possibilities of this to transform this into a pop up restaurant,” Coun Dobson added.
“We haven’t got an Italian, or a Thai restaurant. We want to have a better, broader food offering in the town.”
Coun Dobson is also putting forward plans to make up to £25,000 available for personal loans to people who want to bring their business into Accrington, funded by the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership.
He added he also wants a complete council database drawn up of all the landlords and shopkeepers to make it easier for new businesses to find appropriate premises, and introduce inter-store referrals and special store discounts.
Coun Dobson said: “We have also identified with private sector partners 200 additional parking spaces in Accrington town centre and what we’d have is a full review of parking and change some parking to three hour parking, and others to 30 minutes. We have genuine concerns but we do have answers. However, I think Accrington town centre needs immediate help so we freely give this plan to Miles and the Labour group to take all of it or what they see fit.
“We really feel that growth can come to Hyndburn and Accrington town centre. We need a passion and a vision to galvanise it.”
Hyndburn’s leader says they are ‘open to all suggestions’ for Accrington - but has ruled out offering a council cash incentive to shop locally.
Councillor Miles Parkinson told the Observer that all ideas can be discussed between traders and town leaders, but the council could only ‘do so much’.
He said: “We all agree that we need a unique selling point and it’s important that comes from the traders and stockholders and the Chamber of Trade. It’s also about highlighting the views of shoppers and what they look for as well for a day out. Apps of this sort are the way forward, if you’re not digital you’re simply going to be left behind. We tried this with the Market Hall with buying online and we did our best to get more retailers engaged in that but it can be looked at again.”
But he added: “It would be highly unusual for a council to offer a cash incentive. We wouldn’t be able to budget for that, it’s not for the council to be offering discounts on private businesses, especially if it’s only one town in the borough.
“The issue why most town centres are not as successful as they have been previously is that wage growth is struggling and there is less money to spend.
“The best way the council can support the town centre is to make sure that employment sites such as Whitebirk come on and we get better paid jobs. The council will do whatever it can to enable the success of the town, but it can only do so much, and it’s about the traders too. At the end of the day we are there to provide the vital services.”
But Coun Parkinson said they are already working with police to exclude shoplifters from the town centre.
Tory plan to transform town
* Pop-up restaurant with Accrington and Rossendale College
* Inter-shop referrals and discounts between independent stores
* Full database of landlords and shopkeepers
* 200 additional parking spaces in centre
* Loans of up to £25k for new businesses
* Discounts on council tax rates for shopping locally
* Mobile app to track products in town centre
* 40 events a year bringing in 200,000 people to the town
* Seven day a week trading in Accrington
* A ‘unique selling point’ with art and crafts, antique and vintage stores
* Ban shoplifters during the day and troublemakers at night