(A report by John Leach, Deputy Chief Executive – Communities)
The Portfolio Holder presented the report supported by the Deputy Chief Executive for Communities.
Boston Town Centre us a jet economic and social hub for the Borough of Boston. Importantly it is a sub-regional retail center that provides retail employment as well as having a number of visitor attractions. The town center has like many towns in the Country, suffered in recent times due to many factors including the pandemic and the rise in internet shopping. However, it still has a lot to offer.
The strategy and action plan covered the period 2023 – 2027 and provided a vision and objectives, along with 70 actions which cover 4 themes of clean and safe, open for business, culture heritage and events and also transformation. In developing the piece of work, those involved were committee to working in partnership with residents, businesses, communities and partners, including working very closely with BTAC the Chairman of which having been involved throughout the process. The aim being to revitalise the high street and the surrounding public realm, making it a town center to be proud of and a place recognised for its great heritage.
The Deputy Chief Executive for Communities provided a visual presentation confirming that there were 7 key points to address in the structure of the strategy including an action plan, vision and key strategic objections, management of a dynamic space, challenges and opportunities and also to measure the success with emerging themes and actions and moving to recommendation for consideration.
Members were advised that the strategy had to maximise the priorities for the people of Boston and play to its strengths as a historic center known nationally and internationally as the home of Boston Stump and the connection with the Pilgrim Fathers, and with over 150 listed buildings with the locality.
The strategy included within its scope, central park with it being part of the offer of the town, and areas either side of the river including the coach and train stations. The economic area of the town center comprised of 52 hectares and with changes to the retail sector and shopping habits, its role as a retail center was in decline. There was however a well-established market and the town benefited from a good number of car parks.
Feedback from the consultation process to date and identified key areas of focus including tourism, use of the waterways, being welcoming and the need for more business and also use of existing buildings and land.
Key strategic objectives identified included the need for a clean and tidy town center, to ensure residents and visitors all felt safe both in the daytime and in the evening and for businesses to be able to thrive. Access and egress of the town center needed to be simple for everyone and to build a cohesive community working effectively with public sector partners, businesses and the community and voluntary sector.
Challenges would include limited resources, what to do with empty shop units, the negativity of Boston following Christmas 2022 and ongoing perceptions about community cohesion and community safety.
There were however opportunities including seeking an increase in capacity by working through volunteering and funding bids, putting into practice an intelligent led approach to littering and fly tipping and better support for all communities through events that positively unite the range of communities. Additionally those involved would work alongside the Growth Directorate to help and develop a strategic approach to Town Center Management and also to seek support from the Levelling Up partnership.
Thematic areas identified included Clean and Safe, Open for Business Culture, Heritage and Events, and Transformation. Full consultation would take place between the 15th September to the 15th October
Committee deliberation followed which is summarised and included:
Comments from members’ in respect of their vision and aspirations’ for the town included the need for improved cleanliness and safety for both residents and visitors; the need to build a tourism hub and also the need to make Boston a destination. Suggestions for improvements included improved signage for car parks to encourage use of the sites currently underused, expansion of the markets offer as a key attraction, promotion of the town as an historic site for film makers and clearance of river banks to provide relaxing walkways away from the town centre in a safe environment. Additional suggestions included an annual programme of a variety of festivals to build year on year repeat attendance.
Concern noted that the emphasis appeared to be on residents and not visitors, with the visitor economy being worth £95mil per annum, additional reference and emphasis to the visitors was required. A suggestion of a task and finish group to look at pro-actively improving the visitor economy was suggested.
Whilst agreeing the benefit of working with the Stump in its’ use of hosting the Tourist Information Centre, concern was raised at the current lack of use of the Guildhall and the urgent need to get it opened and operating as a full time visitors attraction.
Referencing the Wormgate area of the town, a member suggested that it be taken forward as a bespoke area in its own right, with independent shops and eateries which would complement the cobbled street and lend itself to an ‘olde-worlde’ aesthetic.
Addressing the issue of the empty shops, the suggestion of using vinyl’s within the windows was made, with a themed tag-line about the town providing a consistent reference to its facilities.
When referencing the key issues for focus on it was overwhelmingly agreed that the two main areas for initial address were those of safety and cleanliness and both needed to be prioritised, prior to taking any other initiatives forward. There was a clear issue with cleanliness in the town despite early morning cleaning services and although the reference of a ‘perception of fear’ was often used, it a was very real feeling of fear for many residents who felt intimidated and afraid in the town centre with large groups of residents massing at the Ingram memorial. A large number of whom continued to drink alcohol throughout the day, with no enforcement action taken, and many elderly residents no longer visited their town.
The Portfolio Holder confirmed that an umbrella document for a markets development plan was bring created with a full review of the markets provision being undertaken. The introduction of the teenage market had been successful and the new traders were being integrated between the established traders to expand the market off. An introduction pack had been produced for traders at other markets, offering them incentives to consider trading at Boston. Face to face consultations were being held with the public and the traders on market days to gain a wide range of feedback.
Further pressure needed to be put on the Environment Agency in respect of the clearing and maintenance of the riverside banks around the town which were strewn with shopping trolleys and overgrown weeds and foliage, with the waterways being included within the strategy as a tourism asset for the town.
Concluding, the Chairman agreed the comments and suggestions which had been tabled and suggested that the subject of car parking charges needed to be looked into in more detail. Whilst recognising that it was a major income stream for the Council and as such free parking could not be provided, a review of all the sites, the signage for visitors to the sites and the current charging structure overall, could potentially result in improved usage of the sites and increased income. He urged communication with all parties in producing the strategy to ensure residents fully understood what it was intended to produce, and echoed the suggestion that a slogan or strap line was needed to tie the process together, for a simple ease of reference point.