COUNCIL COLUMN: 'Creating the best communities we can...'
Cllr Steve Bridger, Leader of North Somerset Council & Cllr Mike Bell, Deputy Leader
- Credit: NSC
One of the most important challenges facing any community is how to encourage the kind of places that people want to live, work, shop, and visit.
In local government speak we call this placemaking, but it is about trying to create the best communities we can.
Councils have an important role in this work, but we cannot change communities on our own and we do not have unlimited tools to do so.
In North Somerset, we are working hard to deliver across all four of our major towns.
In Weston-super-Mare, we are seeing a town that is growing rapidly, with more people choosing to make it their home and businesses opening every day.
However, the town centre areas see high levels of deprivation, poorer health outcomes, and a lack of private sector investment.
Our SuperWeston strategy for the town centre has been developed in partnership with businesses and residents and aims to set out a vision for the future and direct investment into the right areas.
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In Portishead, we have been working with the town council and local landowners and businesses to develop a placemaking strategy to look at how the area between the high street, the marina, and the planned MetroWest railway station could be improved to bring the greatest benefit to Portishead.
This work is already feeding into the Portishead Neighbourhood Plan and the North Somerset Local Plan.
In Nailsea and Clevedon, we have worked with the respective town councils and other groups to develop new placemaking approaches. This initiative has been branded as ‘Two Towns’ but once concluded will lead to distinctive proposals for each town.
This work has included looking at specific sites and opportunities to improve the vitality of both town centres.
There is lots of good work being done by local communities across North Somerset, but the council does not always have the financial flexibility or powers that we need to drive forward the change we all want to see.
Local councils must live within our financial means and our administration in North Somerset has always been careful with taxpayers’ money.
There have been some councils around the country that have got into serious financial difficulties, but we have worked hard to make sure that doesn’t happen in North Somerset.
That does mean that we have to be very targeted and effective with the money we spend.
So, while we are determined to do our bit as a council to help with the delivery of change including new community infrastructure, transport improvements, business support, and regeneration, we do not have unlimited capacity to do so.
That is why we are keen to bid for and try to win government funding at every opportunity.
We have had some success in this area including securing around £100 million in revenue and capital for improvements to bus services.
We secured £2.8 million from the community renewal fund which is being invested, among other things, in helping get people into work and establish local community hubs.
We remain determined to secure the funding needed to deliver the Portishead rail link.
However, it is not just about money. One of the big challenges all our town centres have in common is the changing face of high streets and shopping.
This has led to a decline in the number of units occupied and some sites that have remained empty for too long.
Empty shops and commercial properties are almost always owned by the private sector and the council does not have the powers to challenge landlords and owners, reduce business rates (which are set by national government) or force them to be let to encourage the economy.
That needs to change, and we welcome government proposals to try and do just that.
Our community rightly expects us to tackle these challenges and we cannot do so if the government leaves us with our hands tied.