East Devon chose the town over Cranbrook.
East Devon District Council’s cabinet last night (Wednesday 6th March) agreed to submit a bid for Axminster to the Government’s Future High Streets Fund.
The Future High Street Fund has been set up to help address the significant structural changes that are currently having an impact on towns and high streets throughout the UK.
Councillors found themselves having to choose between Axminster and Cranbrook as the town to put forward as local authorities are expected to ‘put forward a single, transformative submission covering one high street or town centre in their area’.
Leader of the council, Cllr Ian Thomas said the decision was a ‘poisoned chalice’ between two fundamentally different propositions – with Axminster having a town centre that is struggling and Cranbrook not yet having one.
But the cabinet voted by six votes to two to put forward a bid for Axminster, although Cllr Thomas said that as East Devon is the top ranking Local Authority in Devon in the vibrant economy index, he ‘wasn’t holding his breath that any bid would be a success’.
Deputy chief executive Richard Cohen said that the council can only put forward one bid and that both Cranbrook and Axminster make a compelling case.
He said: “Axminster is a long established town centre in a place designated by the council as a Regeneration Town. The town has and continues to be the focus of significant housing growth which is both a challenge and an opportunity for the future of the town centre. There is long term dereliction and underuse of the Webster’s garage site at the heart of the town centre and significant opportunity to strengthen and diversify the town centre through the development of this site.”
On Cranbrook, he said: “Cranbrook represents a different kind of opportunity to the FHS fund in so far as it is not an established town centre and therefore FHS funding would be sought to enable the creation of a new kind of town centre that is both future proofed and could be a template for the development of town centres in new communities in delivery or planned elsewhere.
“New towns are not precluded from bidding although initially guidance was that they were not initially considering the opportunity presented by new communities such as Cranbrook. A bid for Cranbrook could be an eye-catching challenge to government.”
Cllr Andrew Moulding put forward the case for Axminster, saying the town needed it, particularly given the news that broke this week that Trinity House, the town’s department store, will close in September.
He said: “Axminster is scheduled to grow with 850 new homes and 2,600 new residents a 26 per cent increase. The town has suffered for many years but the Webster’s garage site at the heart of the town is the key for regeneration.
“The Trinity House closure makes bidding for the Future High Street Fund imperative for Axminster. The vacant site at Webster’s garage could be the key to unlocking regeneration for Axminster and I think we need this more than Cranbrook.”
But Cllr Kevin Blakey, chairman of Cranbrook town council, said that the current town centre in Cranbrook was just green space and undeveloped except for a pub.
He said: “Surely Axminster cannot be in as much need as Cranbrook? They are looking for a dysfunctional town centres and a clear vision of what a modern town centres needs to look like, so Cranbrook can be the vanguard of how to thrive alongside e-commerce. Cranbrook can be a blueprint for a vibrant town centre. It may be the risky option but an option to demonstrate forward thinking and must be a risk worth taking.”
Cllr Eleanor Rylance added: “Where better for a future high street than for a future town, as how can we be building a town without facilities? Where better to trial a future high street than an evolving town?”
Mark Williams, the council’s chief executive, said that only one bid could be submitted. He said: “My heart says Cranbrook, but knowing about negotiations with Government, my head says Axminster.”
Cllr Iain Chubb, who lives in Axminster, said he would have to promote the town where he resides. But he added: “Axminster could attract people from Dorset and Somerset and the money spent and knowledge gained in Axminster could be used through the rest of East Devon.
Cllr Marcus Hartnell said that the spirit of the fund is to support an existing and established high street. He added: “Axminster does stand out as having all the right ingredients to put together a bid and I think that to go with the spirit of the fund, we have to back an established town centre, and for me, it is Axminster.”
But Cllr Tom Wright said that the whole point of Cranbrook was for it not be a dormitory of Exeter. He said: “With all the development around Axminster and 2,600 new residents, it will almost provide the footfall to make the town almost by default a viable town centre. Even the town centre in Cranbrook should be down to the developers, if we don’t get something to kick-start it, will become a dormitory and we don’t want that.”
And Cllr Jill Elson added: “Cranbrook has no town centre so if you are short of money, it is very difficult to get a bus or a train fare. I would support Cranbrook going forward as it is deliverable.”
Leader of the council, Cllr Thomas, said it was a wonderful poisoned chalice as they are two fundamentally different propositions.
He said: “I think we have look at the government guidelines as we are more likely to win if we follow them. They are looking for one proposition, not two, so as much as I would like to say go forward with both, but that would result in a risk of both being disqualified.
“The Vibrant Economy Index says that we are the top ranking local authority in Devon, so as the funds are designed to tackle suffering economies, I am not holding my breath we’ll get anything. The problem for me is Cranbrook doesn’t fulfil the criteria sadly, so I think that we have to go with Axminster.”
The cabinet voted by six votes to two to put forward a bid for Axminster to the Future High Streets Fund.
Officers will now work to submit an Expression of Interest bid to the Government by the March 22 deadline.