17-18 Cornhill questions and answers
What are you doing?
What will actually go inside the building is still to be decided but two of the aspirations of the Bury St Edmunds Town Centre Masterplan which was shaped through public engagement and adopted by full council on 19 December 2017 are “Market Thoroughfare – improvements to provide continuity from the historic centre to the arc” and “Develop area between the arc and Cornhill, St Andrews Street South to provide for a mix of uses and to establish closer integration.”
The purchase of 17-18 Cornhill by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, although not a masterplan aspiration in itself, offers the opportunity to deliver some of these improvements and in so doing to encourage other land owners and investors to also make improvements in line with both of these masterplan aspirations. Had we not acted and invested in the purchase of this building, the council would have less control over this outcome.
The masterplan is also about protecting and celebrating our heritage –respecting our history without becoming history. We recognise that the Cornhill front is part of the town’s heritage, in fact it lies within the town centre conservation area and we will work to bring it back into modern day economic use.
How is this going to benefit us as local residents or businesses?
The purchase and subsequent investment will be in line with our Growth Investment Strategy. This is not just about delivering a financial return to support services but also investing in the things that deliver economic and social benefits for our communities. By investing in this site we are not only aiming to achieve improvements to St Andrews Street South, Market Thoroughfare and bring the historic front back into use, we are also looking to open the eyes of investors and other landowners to what can be achieved. We hope it will act as a catalyst for investment and improvement in the area which will benefit the economic growth and vitality of the town centre. It will improve and encourage access between the arc and the Cornhill areas of the town and provide a transition – so while the two part of the town centre will retain their identity, they will also feel a part of a greater whole, something that is felt to be missing at the moment. We will deliver social benefits such as much needed housing and will look wherever possible to encourage and consider building uses that will benefit our community as well.
How have these designs come forward?
We have worked with a number of key partners on the Bury St Edmunds Town Centre Masterplan all with an interest in the continual success of the town. These include the Bury St Edmunds market traders, the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce in Bury St Edmunds, OurBuryStEdmunds Business Improvement District, The Bury Society, Bury St Edmunds Town Trust, Bury St Edmunds Town Council and Suffolk County Council. The masterplan was shaped by two stages of public engagement where officers and partners went to speak with shoppers on Bury market, the local supermarkets and other locations. We listened and shaped the masterplan accordingly. So it is not just the council’s plan, or the masterplan groups plan, but a plan of the people, shaped by all those that took part.
A great many of these groups plus a couple of new ones – The Abbey Heritage Partnership and the Destination Management Organisation Bury St Edmunds and Beyond, are part of a new Bury St Edmunds town centre masterplan advisory group and we have worked with them to bring this project to the stage it is now at.
The public exhibition events on 27 June and 7 July offer a chance for people to come along and view the designs plus ask questions. There will also be a chance for people to leave comments.
How much is it all going to cost?
Full Council has agreed to invest up to £6.72 million investment to redevelop the site – this is on top of the purchase price of £1.68 million.
Why not just knock it down to create a wider area between St Andrews Street South and historic town centre?
The historic front of the Post Office on The Cornhill is part of the heritage of Bury St Edmunds which adds to people’s enjoyment of the town centre. One of the reasons that we wanted to buy the building and gain control is to ensure that this fabric of the town centre’s history is preserved. It is also worth noting that the Cornhill front lies within the town centre conservation area, which means it needs to be retained and sensitively incorporated into any regeneration of the overall site.
Also this scheme is as much about delivering on the improvements to St Andrews Street South and acting as a catalyst for regeneration along there – simply knocking down the St Andrews Street South end would not allow this to happen.
Finally, we have a responsibility to taxpayers. This is a break-even project which means it will deliver economic and social improvements in the town centre without having a detrimental impact on the funds the council needs to supply everyday services to our residents and businesses.
Why didn’t you deliver this wider walkway years ago when the arc was being built?
While it has always been an ambition of the council to create a greater walkway, we were never in control of achieving this as we didn’t own the buildings and at least one of the owners did not want to sell. Although there are mechanisms such as compulsory purchase orders it should be noted that although these can be applied for, they are by no means assured.
Interestingly the sums of money being discussed then are similar to the amounts that are now being invested by the council – the difference being that this isn’t just a project to widen the walkway, but one to protect the historic frontage, create a new shop front to spur improvements in St Andrews Street South, and to deliver much needed town centre housing.
Why not buy the buildings on the other side of the walkway to make a wider plaza?
We can’t comment on buildings over which we have no control.
How much wider is it going to be?
It is not possible to give a precise answer at this stage – this is not a planning application and there is still working going on which could affect the costs on the project and with it the amount of commercial space that we are able to give over to widening the walkway. That said we would not be going public on these images if we weren’t confident that we could deliver on significant improvements not only to widening Market Thoroughfare, but also the look and feel of this important town centre walkway.
Why not campaign for the Post Office to be reinstated back to its use as a Post Office?
As a commercial business, The Post Office made its decision to close the building and open a counter instead within the WH Smith’s site. The council does not have the power to prevent this. When the redundant property was subsequently put up for sale, we acted quickly and were in negotiations with the Post Office for several months to secure the sale.
There are already empty shops in the town – isn’t this a waste of money? Isn’t retail dying?
While it’s true that the success of any business, retail or otherwise depends on having customers or client using their services, we are happy to report that we have had lots of interest in this site. While it is too early to say who the tenants will be, we believe that this is an important step toward helping the ongoing success of the town centre as a place not just to shop, but to relax in cafes and restaurants, to visit for its leisure, culture and heritage activities – to enjoy the Abbey Gardens, the Apex, the Theatre, the Guildhall, Moyse’s Hall Museum, tours of the brewery, the cathedral and the activities organised by the council as part of the street market, and by OurBuryStEdmunds as part of a series of visitor attractions.
Our own car parking figures show that the number of people visiting the town centre during peak times continues to grow – so much so that later in the year we will be discussing how we cater for greater demand in our car parks through further investment in the town.
All of these things are about ensuring that the town centre continues to be a place where people want to come, to work, to shop, to live and to visit, for decades to come.
But isn’t it still risky?
There is of course risk in anything – and we have weighed up these risks before committing to this investment. Equally councillors are elected by those who vote, to lead, to make decisions and to act in the best interests of those they represent. They recognise that while there are risks in investment, there are equally risks associated if we didn’t take action to deliver improvements that we, and those who took part in the masterplan engagement, consider vital to the ongoing success of the town.
Why don’t you simply cut the rents and rates?
The council can only set rents for those buildings it owns – the vast majority of town centre buildings are privately owned and so we have as much say as you do over the rents that are charged. Equally we don’t have the power to lower business rates – but we can offer help through rate support to businesses who get in contact with us and who meet the qualifying criteria.
What guarantees are there that this won't be overturned by the new West Suffolk Council?
St Edmundsbury Borough Council has committed the funding. We anticipate that a planning application will be submitted before the end of the year and it will be decided by the local planning authority whether that be in the form of St Edmundsbury Borough Council or the new West Suffolk Council. Any decisions or commitments made by St Edmundsbury of Forest Heath councils can carry into the new West Suffolk Council.