WHEN St Helens Council revealed its ambitious plans for the regeneration of the town centre in 2017 it was met with positivity and cynicism in equal measures.

Since then, apart from the council’s acquisition of Church Square, town hall chiefs have been noticeably quiet on the subject, while insisting that much work is going on behind closed doors.

Council leader Derek Long asserted in July that the regeneration was “on track”, although that came with a warning that it would take years to see the vision be fully realised.

The task is indeed a mammoth one, especially given the currently economic climate and the current uncertainty over Brexit, but 12 months on, this particular mission remains a key priority to the local authority

Cllr Andy Bowden, ward member for Parr and cabinet member for balanced development, housing and economic opportunity, said: "We have set out a very ambitious plan for the town centre.

“And work is ongoing, but we need to do what we can to progress that vision into delivery and reality and action.

“Some of it is difficult to do and to articulate because we are dealing with the private sector and you’re dealing with confidentiality and things like that, that have to be respected.

“And in some cases, ultimately it is a decision of an individual business, sometimes at a national level, that influence those businesses placed within the town centre.

St Helens Star:

  • The arts and leisure offer, Cllr Bowden says, is an “extremely important” element of the town centre strategy moving forward

“We’re doing our job in reshaping and redeveloping, as has been reported in the past.

“It is a challenging process – but we need our community to feel that the work we are doing is moving from vision into actions.”

The decline in the British high street is certainly not a unique problem to St Helens, as shopping habits have shifted to online.

Rejuvenating the town’s retail offer is still key to the council’s strategy, but this will be without national retailers such as Marks and Spencer, which has announced it will be exiting the high street and relocate to Ravenhead Retail Park in early 2019.

And just last week Argos also announced it will be leaving the high street, with its staff being shifted to its existing shop on the retail park.

“Again, that’s a national decision about them repositioning themselves in the borough,” Cllr Bowden said.

“And that’s just an example of how we in St Helens and other towns are being impacted by what is happening within the retail sector at a national level.”

While the retail sector remains a crucial part of the council’s town centre vision, it is not the only component.

The arts and leisure offer, Cllr Bowden says, is an “extremely important” element of the town centre strategy moving forward.

It is also an area that has seen some progress in the past year.

Rioja, a tapas restaurant and bar, opened on Duke Street in September and followed the opening of Tex Mex eatery Sabroso, based in the George Street quarter, in June.

St Helens Star: Opening night at Sabroso

  • Cllr Andy Bowden with the owners of Sabroso

Ian Pitts launched The Secret Garden gin bar, next door to the Imperial Terrace and Bar on Ormskirk Street – which he also owns – in December 2017.

This came hot on the heels of the launch of The Church, an underground German beer and rum bar, in Imperial Terrace’s basement.

Another key element to the strategy that has seen progress in the last 12 months is town-centre housing, which the council hope will help stimulate the night-time economy.

Luxor Group unveiled 15 one and two-bedroom apartments at Nicholson Lofts in Bridge Street in December.

And the Liverpool-based developer is also working on delivering three studios and 15 new apartments at the site on the corner of Claughton Street and Barrow Street.

While welcoming the entrepreneurs who have chosen to invest in St Helens, Cllr Bowden said it is now up to others within the private sector to “step up”.

“We can play our part as the public sector and the local authority, but the private sector and entrepreneurs need to play their part and step up to the mark,” he said.

“The private sector has to play its part. "

Cllr Bowden said the council can “shape the environment” investors wish to operate in and can support businesses through the council’s town centre team and planning department.

The council will also soon be able to help through mechanisms such as the Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA), he said, which is currently out for public consultation.

The CIA, which will cover the whole of the Town Centre ward, will allow the authority and its partners to have a greater say when reviewing licensing applications for licensed premises.

Cllr Bowden said the authority hopes this will “discourage low-end bars” opening and encourage a better offer.

While creating an attractive night-time offer is key, the Labour councillor also said the authority must help deliver an early evening offer also.

Delivering the vision is going to be no tall order, particularly as the council faces other significant challenges to deliver statutory services such as adult and children’s social care while trying to save £20.6 million by 2020.

Cllr Bowden said the council is using its “increasingly diminishing resources” provided by central government to deliver these services, and the authority is still largely in the dark around the level of funding it will receive beyond 2020.

To compound the situation, the local authority has the uncertainty of what the landscape will be like post-Brexit.

“We can only control what we can control,” Cllr Bowden said.

“St Helens voted to leave Europe and the government has made it clear that will happen.

“That said it is important that government, as quickly as possible, provides certainty to both business and local authorities about what is going to happen once we leave.

“That will allow businesses to plan, that allows local authorities to understand the likely impact and helps us shape our future.

“So, it’s certainty we require from government in order to move forward.”

St Helens Star:

Cllr Andy Bowden

For now, the mission remains the same – to deliver an ambitious town centre regeneration that will make the people of St Helens proud and draw in visitors from miles around.

Whether the council can deliver its vision, or whether it ultimately proves to be mission impossible, remains to be seen.

A recap of St Helens Council’s town centre vision

Four quarters

St Helens Council’s vison will see the town centre split into four distinct quarters – the Shopping Quarter, centred on Church Square; the Education Quarter, based around St Helens College; and the Growth Quarter at the canal-side redevelopment.

The Civic and Heritage Quarter was originally intended to have the town hall and the Gamble building at its heart, home to Central Library. However, the library has been closed since March 2017.

Canal-side focal point

The council want to transform Sankey Canal into a modern waterfront area like Liverpool’s Albert Dock, taking inspiration from stylish cities around the UK and Europe.

The development is seen as a key focal point to the entire regeneration of the town centre, complete with bars and restaurants on lower levels and canal-side apartments above.

Vibrant night-time economy

The canal-side area would be the centre of a lively night-time economy, but the council is keen to promote a more sensible drinking culture within the town.

In order to do this a public consultation is currently taking place regarding the implementation of a Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) across the Town Centre ward.

The council has called the CIA a “strategic tool” that will help assist the town centre development.

New shopping mix

The council want to create an enhanced shopping area in keeping with the changing face of the British high street, with independent shops appearing alongside well-known high street brands.

Last October the authority announced it had purchased Church Square for £26.6 million, which will give the council greater control to shape the town’s retail offer.

Family-friendly dining

St Helens Council have made it clear it wants to bring in more restaurants, particularly family-centred eateries, to help improve the town’s early evening and overall offer.

The last 12 months has seen the opening of two new restaurants in Rioja and Sabroso. It will be hoping to add many more in the years ahead.

Arts and culture centre

The council want to strengthen the borough’s nationally-recognised arts and culture offer, with the potential for a dedicated arts and culture centre included in the canal-side regeneration.

Talks have been ongoing for some time to transform The World of Glass into such a centre, which could also see Central Library relocated, although nothing has been announced.

Modern town centre living

The council want to transform some of the town’s vacant sites, including Birchley Street car park and St Helens Central railway station, into attractive apartments for young professionals.

Luxor Estates unveiled Nicholson Lofts on the former Tyrers department store in December and is currently working on delivering luxury apartments at empty office space on Claughton Street.

Utilise heritage

Sankey Canal is the oldest industrial canal in the world, having opened four years before the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester.

The council want to build on the town's industrial heritage, particularly in regard to its glass heritage to improve the town’s visual identity.

Improved connectivity

Improved connectivity is a key part of the regeneration strategy, with the council noting St Helens' advantageous position at the interchange of north-south and east-west motorway and railway links.

The council also intend to push for the creation of a direct route to Manchester from St Helens Central in the future.