The Future of Lewes High Street: Panel Discussion facilitated by Friends of Lewes, 20 May 2021

A summary of the discussion

 

This event was chaired by Lindsay Frost, an independent planning consultant.

Four panellists made brief opening presentations:

Jean Lawrence (Lewes Area Access Group) outlined the need for:

  • Improved disability toilet provision
  • Physical changes to pavements, signs & street furniture
  • An Access Guide from the District Council
  • Increased awareness of non-evident disabilities and an ageing population

Kevin Moore (Lewes Living Streets) outlined the need to:

  • Reduce traffic speed and volume of through traffic – 24K vehicles a day enter Lewes
  • Increase extent of areas of full or partial pedestrianisation, whilst making arrangements for parking, deliveries and redistribution of traffic. “A High Street centred on people, not cars”
  • Make the High Street more appealing to people, rather than see traffic continue to dominate.
  • Consider two-way cycling on School Hill
  • Gather more data from camera surveys and by consulting residents
  • Agree a strategy in the next year to attract funding in later 2022

James MacCleary (Leader, Lewes District Council) identified key issues, including:

  • The move to online shopping increased in last year because of Covid
  • The collapse of several large chains – independents more adaptable? More vacant units.
  • Retail to Residential conversions now more likely: LDC is a landowner & landlord [as well as effectively the Planning Authority]
  • The need for effective & coherent lobbying of Government by councils for funding for improvements and investment
  • LDC consider that the future of the High Street should be ‘people led’.

Ashley Price (Lewes Chamber of Commerce) indicated that:

  • Immediate action to support businesses is vital
  • Customers need to be positively attracted back by a more attractive environment
  • A role exists for LDC regarding empty properties, maintenance and cleanliness
  • Accessibility is an issue not only for Blue Badge holders
  • Low traffic proposals would not increase business
  • Concern existed about impact on retail and services of fresh Phoenix/NSQ proposals
  • Location of car parks is vital: parking close by is important for some customers and shops
  • Promoting business is a “virtuous circle” – generating employment

 

Questions / Answers / Discussion: key points:

Noted that some of the accessibility package proposals could be implemented immediately and cheaply -eg removal of obstacles on pavements.

Agreement from all Panellists that the High Street needs to be made more attractive.  Whilst retaining access for all, plus delivery vehicles etc.

Supporters of removing through traffic from the High Street acknowledge that this traffic should not be moved onto eg Prince Edward Road/Southover High Street, this would merely relocate the problem, creating new ‘rat runs’, but it should be encouraged to stay on A27.

Acknowledged that current car park provision is fully used.  Park & Ride options have been considered extensively previously and thought not to be viable in this size of town, but there is some willingness to re-visit this  matter.

Reported that some available parking was used by all-day parkers, thereby reducing provision for shoppers and visitors.

Suggested that Lewes’ independent retailers offer sufficient variation so that additional leisure ‘experiences’ did not need to be considered.  Lewes Castle, Anne of Cleves and the Priory are still major draws to the traditional tourists.

Some concerns that any ’all-embracing vision’ might not include the views of young people.  The Chamber of Commerce reported that they work with the secondary schools and college in the town, providing work experience, so they undertook to seek young people’s views as to what would attract them in a changed High Street. Young people already contribute to various discussions in schools about sustainability – these are considered vital for the future of the town.  Plans for safe and sustainable streets around schools, eg Potters Lane and Mountfield Road, are being followed up.

Optimism was aired that new plans for the North Quarter/Phoenix site from Human Nature will utilise the opportunities available on the river frontage, link well with the High Street via walking/cycling routes and be accessible to all. Concern was expressed that revised plans may include enough retail to rival the High Street and continue the imbalance between upper and lower parts.

Guidance on conversion of existing retail premises, where new retail occupants are not available, to residential is covered by the Friends of Lewes new Planning Guidance leaflet, available on their website. Many of the 500+ Listed buildings in Lewes are on the High Street and changes need to be sensitive to the value and significance of groups of buildings in a ‘streetscape’.

The issue of future developments in Lewes providing a balance between need for both housing and employment was raised and admitted to be a concern.  Liberalising of national planning controls by central Government in future may worsen the situation.

Plans were mentioned for a Lewes Pound ‘card’ to reflect the decreasing use of cash in business and retail.  Positive mention was made of local organisations who implement a local procurement policy.

Recognised that, with the reduction of commuting, opportunities were opening up for provision of shared working hubs/workshops in the town centre, with LDC opening one shortly in Fisher Street.

The Panellists had mixed views as to whether the priority focus should be on long term economic recovery or short term Covid recovery.  Views varied between finding a necessary long-term solution re. traffic congestion and access to improve health and well-being of all users of the High Street, to an unspecified holistic plan for both short and long terms.  Provision for families was considered essential.  Lewes District Council emphasised the relevance of its community wealth-building agenda in tandem with an effective Covid 19 recovery plan, all with the necessary considerations of sustainability etc.

Audience reaction included support for further traffic and visitor surveys.

A wide range of views from the panellists and audience members, and this is just for starters: the next issue is how to relate to the agencies that formulate policy.