Residents urged to have their say on creation of a plan for Berwick
Firstly, may I thank all members of the working group and steering groups for the time that they have put in to developing the Berwick Neighbourhood Plan to date.
Also my thanks to the hundreds of residents, businesses and stakeholders who have submitted their opinions to us to help shape the plan.
It is now just over a year since the plan area was approved for Berwick, Spittal and Tweedmouth.
Whilst things may seem to have gone quiet, work has continued; and we will soon be asking you again to feed your opinions in to the process.
Local Plans historically have been prepared centrally by a local planning authority, such as Northumberland County Council (NCC). They consider data such as housing needs, how people travel to work, and what sort of industrial units are needed to support business. To this is added your input, and everything is put out for consultation.
Not much has changed except that NCC are now required to produce a Core Strategy, and local policies are added via the many Neighbourhood Plans now being developed across the county.
Having first served as a Labour councillor in an inner city, with an ageing infrastructure and commercial premises built for industries long gone, I recognised the spirit of NCC’s draft Core Strategy, but for us it seems out of place.
We are not a pit village, or decaying market town with a dying town centre. The fact that the word Scotland is hardly mentioned exposes the draft document as one focused on the south east of the county. Even our town walls, an outstanding monument, are not mentioned in the list of Northumberland’s heritage assets.
The paucity of references to anything north than Ashington is stark. Berwick is named 33 times in contrast to Morpeth (92), Blyth (82), and Hexham(52). Alnwick fares worse with only 30 references. Tweedmouth has three mentions, and Spittal two.
With Scotland appearing only four times, in contrast to 51 references to Tyneside, you may think that NCC’s draft Core Strategy has no significance for us. That is the wrong response because the Neighbourhood Plan process empowers us to restore the balance.
The rules are simple, in the absence of an adopted Core Strategy a Neighbourhood Plan is the planing framework. Even when NCC’s Core Strategy is adopted as Berwick is hardly mentioned we have been given a huge blank canvas to write our own destiny.
So here is a heads up of some of my early thoughts on the key themes of any plan, which I stress are a personal opinion, and I hope will prompt debate and more input to the Neighbourhood Plan.
With trade (wholesale and retail) being our largest employment sector, Berwick is a market town that is bucking the trend. Our central retail offering needs to be attractive and more pedestrian-friendly, with the Old Bridge either closed to vehicles or with limited times for vehicular use.
More people work in manufacturing than tourism, and many jobs are available in construction with our local strength being Low Carbon and Sustainable Build.
It seems clear to me that whilst we benefit from some significant large employers, employment growth is coming from small businesses. There is demand for light industrial units, and they need good transport links.
How can we attract the investment to clear the empty large industrial units from Tweedside? Turning them in to housing is not a solution, as made clear from feedback from the business community who wants us to protect every employment site that we can to allow for economic development.
I would allow the Ramparts to expand to capture more trade from Scotland, and seek to redevelop older industrial sites, such as Tweedside, to support the growing number of new businesses that are developing across the Borders. We need managed workshops and more light industrial units. Let’s make Berwick attractive to inward investment, and thus help to attract new jobs to the town.
A moratorium on office development is essential. We have a 19 per cent office vacancy rate, and allowing any more will leave dereliction elsewhere and rob the town of scarce development land. We need more offices like we need a hole in the head!
The core strategy recommends only 45 new homes a year. Yet the census data reveals that we have hidden homelessness through overcrowding. Prior to the start of the Neighbourhood Plan process I attended a number of tenants and residents meetings, and the feedback was that there is a shortage of affordable homes for sale and rent. Forty five a year will not meet current demand. If we are to exploit our geographical location as the key route from Edinburgh’s growing economy to England, and the proposed new Lothian rail line, we should be building hundreds of new houses to enable Berwick to benefit from economic growth in Scotland.
As the only Northumberland coastal town with high-speed rail, direct access to the A1 and a bypass, why does Castlegate seem more congested than central London? Our air quality is poor, with insufficient parking for both residents and local businesses, and we must be the only historic walled town in the Europe that allows heavy vehicles to pass through our Gate.
We need a sustainable transport plan that aligns with the land allocations for housing and employment – moving cars and lorries to the periphery, where they can access the wider road network without clogging up Marygate, and then we can focus on making the town centre pedestrian friendly.
We have the only working estuary port in north Northumberland, an important trade route that supports our manufacturing industry, and is essential for jobs. Historically it used the Tweedmouth Goods yard, but the town has developed around it, and it is now badly located for heavy vehicles. A new road-rail freight interchange at the Ramparts Business Park, close to the A1 could be a better location.
So ends my own opinions, but it is your opinions that matter – so please send them in via www.berwickplan.co.uk; email firstname.lastname@example.org or in writing to: Berwick Town Council, 5 The Chandlery, Quayside.
Eric Goodyer is chairman of the Berwick Neighbourhood Plan steering group.