John Lord: Berwick can bounce back from decline to prosper in the future

Berwick Quayside.

Berwick Quayside.

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Economic development and regeneration consultant John Lord outlines plans to revive the town with a £30m investment

BERWICK is one of the most remarkable and memorable small towns in England. It is a place with a rich history, a superb natural setting and wonderful architecture and townscape.

But, like many other towns of its size and type, Berwick has found it hard to compete and prosper in the modern era.

There is nothing new about this. Compared with the rest of England, Berwick has been in relative decline for 200 years. In that time employment in a series of traditional staple industries – mining, agriculture and manufacturing – has collapsed.

The old industries have been replaced by jobs in public and private sector services, and some long-established businesses, such as Simpsons Malt, continue to thrive. But the overall picture is of a town lacking in economic vitality and struggling to find a sense of purpose in a fiercely competitive environment.

Many rural towns, especially those located a long way from major towns and cities, have had the same experience. The effects are well known: an ageing population, a lack of opportunity for young people and families and a low-skill, low-wage workforce.

Towns like Morpeth and Corbridge have found a new lease of life as commuter communities, but that is not realistic for Berwick. The resulting cycle of decline reduces consumer confidence and discourages investment.

These long-term threats have been joined by growing concerns about the condition of the town centre. The Berwick Advertiser regularly carries stories about the closure of familiar chain stores or much-loved independent shops.

Some shops lie empty; others are filled by charity stores, pound shops, bookmakers, pawnbrokers or payday cheque companies. There is an anxious debate about parking, and empty sites and buildings give the town centre a forlorn and neglected appearance.

The truth is that every town centre is facing the same pressures. Edge-of-town supermarkets and retail parks capture local spending, and internet shopping and online services are growing at a spectacular pace. We live differently now, and the high street no longer plays a central part in most people’s lives. Thousands of shops, pubs, banks and post offices have closed, and small towns have been hit particularly hard.

These are the challenges that Berwick’s Portas Town Team is trying to address, but everyone knows that a return to the traditional town centre isn’t an option.

Despite these challenges I am not despondent about Berwick’s prospects. The past few years have seen real changes for the better.

The development of Berwick Workspace has been a success, and the restoration of the Dewar’s Lane Granary is one of the best examples of community-led regeneration in the country. Simpsons is one of the most important businesses in the north east, and there has been a revival in the fortunes of the Port of Berwick.

The arts scene is thriving with the Maltings, the film festival and the new Watchtower gallery, and there are some great independent shops and cafes. The Berwick Historic Area Improvement Scheme has made a huge difference, especially in Bridge Street and Castlegate.

All this has happened despite the recession and is a reflection of the creativity, energy and enterprise of the people of Berwick. It shows that, even in difficult times, something can be done if the community works together.

The regeneration of Berwick is one of Arch’s top priorities, and we aim to build on these recent successes and support the aspirations of organisations like the Civic Society and the Mouth of the Tweed group.

A lot of people told us Berwick has already had enough studies and strategies. We agree. So Arch’s approach has been to work within the framework set out in the 2008 Regeneration Strategy and to draw on subsequent reports on parking, tourism and the public realm.

The Berwick Plan, agreed by the Berwick’s Future Partnership in September 2012, is based on all this excellent research but – in a tough economic climate – we have decided to focus on a few priorities for action, including:

•redevelopment of the Kwik Save site in Walkergate to create a civic and commercial hub

•creating affordable homes in the town centre

•investing in the environment of the historic heart of Berwick

•regeneration of the Quayside

•a new home for the museum and the records office

•making the most of the town’s arts, culture and heritage assets

•attracting inward investment.

We have mapped out a work programme designed to deliver a total investment of about £30m in these priority projects.

There are no guarantees of success and there will, no doubt, be delays and disappointments along the way. But the response we have had from the community has been tremendously encouraging.

Like other small towns, Berwick faces hard times, but this is a special place with a lot going for it. There is no reason why we can’t prosper in the future.

•John Lord works in Berwick for Arch, established in April 2012 and wholly owned by Northumberland County Council as a private sector arms-length development company focussing on development and regeneration.

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