The contentious ‘Northgate’ issue is back in the public eye this week as the long awaited report has now been published by SDC Corporate Director Doug Bamsey for consideration by a Special Full Council meeting to be held on Friday 27th November. The day before this, Thursday 26th, will see the new ‘masterplan’ unveiled to the Town Council’s new Town Development Forum and an initial public response will be required.
Town Council Leader Cllr Brian Smedley has studied the masterplan ,met today with Doug Bamsey and lead officer Stuart Martin and here outlines the key issues from the report in advance of the meetings.
“When Bridgwater Town Council re-engaged with Sedgemoor and Somerset we wanted to make sure that we were all working together this time. What we didn’t want was a repeat of the years of confrontation that we had with Tescos, which we saw as an unwanted project being foisted upon us. At the Town Development Forum in August we set out our terms for co-operation and now that the report is in the public domain we want to be able to work with the two land-owning authorities to provide something that we actually want here in Bridgwater. We will look at this in detail at the Town Development Forum which meets 7pm on Thursday 26th at the Town Hall, but there are 4 tests that we established at the first meeting and It is important that SDC and SCC explain how they will incorpate these.”
“Bridgwater Town Councils priorities are i) maintaining and enhancing the green space, ii) a leisure focus to any development, iii) preserving the historic buildings and iv) compatibility of any development with the historic town centre”
“It is important to note that there is no longer the same financial imperative there was in the past to gain a capital receipt, when there was a race against time to get the new swimming pool paid for. This means that we can look at a variety of mixed uses for the site which are compatible with a location set as it is between residential and town centre commercial and with a leisure link, but that profitability isn’t the only motivation.”
“ Much of the meeting at Full Council will simply be agreeing in principle to the division and exchange of land boundaries and permissions to develop the land with SCC and SDC. So the broad acceptance or rejection of the Masterplan is the first bridge to cross, and there are several key factors”
At the August meeting we were first told of the urgent need for a 210 capacity primary school and that Northgate was County’s favoured location. At the time no position was taken by the Town Forum on this other than to await the SCC business case. There was some concern that the traffic infrastructure isn’t suitable for a primary school on this location and that it might be a ‘dead site’ at night time.
The first problem with the report is that SCC have now raised the numbers from the proposed 210 to a new 420. However, if the case for a school is proven the location could be made to work and with a catchment leading back into the Newtown area then pedestrian, cycle and general through-routes could make the school and associated leisure facilities and town centre an attractively accessible area.
The key benefit of having a school in such a location would be it’s potential for community use and access to the proposed MUGA’s, pitches and sports facilities would be a clear enhancement and an extra draw to the area. The plan sees the school moved to a more central location eating up the eastern end of the Brewery field – however, the lost land is reclaimed by adding greenery and childrens play areas to part of the existing carpark and running through to Mount street.
One area of possible contention is Somerset’s commitment to investigating potential uses of the historic workhouse infirmary building. Following a public meeting early in 2015 SCC bowed to public pressure and halted demolition pending an investigation. Now the report suggests that they can’t find a way to save it. The Forums position thus far is that they need to find a way to either use the historical building or to retain the building materials and to rebuild the school – which is proposed as a two-storey block on approximately the same location.
Town’s position on key usage for the land has always been Leisure and accordingly SDC investigated these options and have come back with a major leisure project. A multiplex cinema with its associated food outlets – that could see the likes of Nando’s and Ben & Jerrys coming to town, is the kind of central facility called for through our Youth Forum and easily topped the poll at the Town Council’s College Freshers week survey. The short term lease of the Scott cinemas building on Penel Orlieu will be an issue but SDC have been talking to them about involvement. It’s also clear that a 2 screen cinema is not as commercially viable as a 6 screen facility with proper disabled access and associated food outlets. The return of a key leisure and entertainment centre on the site of the former Splash would be a big step forward for the town.
Food store or Hotel
One area of the site has been designated for ‘food store’ but with a secondary option of ‘hotel’. For many the issue here is whether Northgate can sustain both a school and a major foodstore on one site and still not be a traffic nightmare. As regards the food store then many of the original arguments still stand as presumably there remains no perceived need for extra food retail as plenty exists. There will also be associated traffic issues for residents as delivery lorries along with hundreds of other vehicles including school buses will access the site plus Opening hours and early deliveries will still be disruptive in a residential area . So it is likely that residents would prefer the hotel option to keep a residential area just that. It may be that the difference between foodstore and hotel is being judged financially and we may need to argue that this need not be the imperative for a mixed use site with neighbours.
A key demand from Town was how the green space can be maintained and enhanced. This is a crucial issue and it’s encouraging that the TPO’s have been considered and we aren’t facing a whole scale massacre of mature trees and habitat this time. Critical will be the % greenery. Car parking will be reduced and replaced by green space on the one hand and community access to school land will see an actual overall increase in greenfield across the site. Whilst boundaries and borders will change a green link from town centre to dock with a leisure themed core is pretty much what we’ve been looking for. The key linkage will be a 5 metre wide throughway taking a bee line from end of Angel crescent (the former North Gate of the town) and the Docks. To the right as you enter the Northgate site you’ll be immediately in greenery and a ‘kiosk’, possibly with refreshments and surrounded by seating and tables would be a positive link for shoppers, parents, leisure centre users and walkers and the area could become a key hub for the town.
A key issue with the former Tesco development was the potential harmful impact on the existing town centre. SDC had tried to deflect criticism by redefining the Northgate area itself as part of the town centre, however, without the superstore element there is clearly no need for this and the Local Plan can designate it as mixed use leisure-recreation-residential which allows us to focus once again on regenerating the actual town centre and linking it to the new development via Angel Crescent and Angel Place.
A good basis to work from
Bridgwater Town Council wants to work with Sedgemoor and Somerset and we need to be convinced that we are regarded as equal partners. They may hold the land but they hold it for us and we need to say what we want on that land.
This document is a good basis to work from, but there’s a lot more input and discussion still to be had.If the Town Development Forum accepts it and if SDC and SCC take onboard our key points then we have the starting point for a good working partnership to bring about a project finally that people actually want on this site and the town can be proud of.