WHAT kind of town does High Wycombe want to be?

As work begins to improve the look and infrastructure of the town centre, how can we ensure it becomes - and remains - a vibrant economic location for the future?

These were among the questions raised at a new Bucks Free Press Business Forum event, sponsored by Stupples Chandler Garvey, which held its inaugural meeting last week.

The starting point was the Wycombe Masterplan – a major scheme intending to improve the look and feel of the town.

After a presentation from one of the key figures in the implementation of the plan, the discussion moved into a range of related topics – all with the aim of making Wycombe a better, more vibrant place.

In attendance were a range of figures with an interest in the town:

Councillor Hugh McCarthy – Deputy Leader of Wycombe District Council; John Callaghan- Team Leader of Planning Services for WDC; Oliver O’Dell - Chief Executive of HWBiDCo; Chris Harvey - MD of HAP Architects; Helen Pearce - Operations Manager at John Lewis High Wycombe; Rupert Waters – Head of Economic Research at Buckinghamshire Business First; Michael Garvey - partner at Stupples Chandler Garvey

The Masterplan – the starting point for a vision of the future

“Wycombe deserves better,” said Cllr Hugh McCarthy before planning officer John Callaghan began his presentation.

That, he said, was the driver of the Masterplan - to revamp the town into being a location people would actively want to visit and lift it from the doldrums of its current infrastructure.

The town centre will be made more pedestrian friendly with new and improved public spaces and changes to the road network, including a major traffic route behind the town that would replace the current Abbey Way flyover.

Mr Callaghan said: “The quality of the environment is an essential part of its (Wycombe’s) appeal and future success.”

‘Connectedness’ was the key, he stressed. Instead of having ‘silo’s’ of segregated assets, such as the Rye, which is divorced from the town centre by the A40’s dual carriageway, key features need to be linked up, easier to access and reached in a way that is more pleasant for pedestrians - instead of grimly grey flyovers and underpasses.

Work gets underway this year to make the plan a reality, with a crossing over the A40, between the Rye and the town centre getting underway next week. Ultimately the scheme, in the pipeline since 2003, is scheduled for completion in 2026.

Mr Callaghan said: “It’s no panacea but we think these changes will give us the option for more far-reaching changes in the future.”

Cllr McCarthy added: “The aim behind this is to reposition Wycombe to become a nicer destination.

“We want to meander through town without being caged in by rails or traffic lights.”

Oliver O’Dell, of the HWBidCo questioned the link between the changing infrastructure and ways to encourage people to invest in the town. Would, for example, the town still be pursuing retail investment, and was there an idea of what type of people would actually want to come to this revamped space?

He said: “Do we have enough of a handle on what the offering of the town is going to be?

“It’s all very well creating this lovely place but there’s still got to be an offering.

“What are we doing to create the future?”

Identity crisis – what does Wycombe want to be?

Has Wycombe tried to broaden its appeal too much?

Helen Pearce of John Lewis asked a key question: “Who is Wycombe’s customer?”

She believes that too many times the town has acted on ideas which have not quite taken hold as intended: “Wycombe is great at starting things – at opening up a new pitch and leaving something sparkly behind.”

She said areas of the town needed clearer ‘themes’ to draw people in. While Eden’s identity is clearly about retail, what was that of Frogmoor? Or even that of the High Street?

Answering this could be a key win in the battle to make the town more vibrant– by having the confidence to give areas in the town a distinct identity instead of trying to appeal to everyone and falling short.

Why not, she wondered, make the town known for something in the way that others are, giving the example of specialist markets?

“What does Wycombe want to be known for?” she asked.

Michael Garvey noted that when the Oracle was built in Reading it seemed to have the effect of making the surrounding area of the town desirable to retailers in a way that has not happened in Wycombe – largely due to the recession.

In Reading, he said, if major retailers could not find premises in the Oracle they would grab any space going in the town because it had become an important location for them. This has not happened in Wycombe, with too many retailers rushing under Eden’s roof, leaving slim pickings elsewhere – particularly in the beleaguered Frogmoor area.

He added: “I think Eden’s been a fantastic development for the town but I think it’s fragmented the town.”

Michael noted the stranglehold listed buildings had, on Frogmoor in particular, stopped buildings being converted into homes. Vibrancy, he said, is a holistic thing for any town, no matter what form it takes.

Oliver added: “We have almost tried to be all things to all people, and in a disjointed way.

“There are pots of good stuff but it doesn’t match up. It comes back to that – what town are you trying to be?”

 Night-time economy – where can we sit down at a ‘proper’ restaurant?

Another concern raised by Oliver was that of the night-time economy which recently took a further blow with the closure of the Antelope pub.

He noted the irony of the town being a purple flag holder: “We’re great at managing the night-time economy but we don’t have a night-time economy.”

The town has a diminishing number of locations to keep people here for a night out – no club and dwindling pubs.

While the Swan Theatre and the Cineworld cinema offered entertainment, there was little to get people going out, unlike other nearby towns, which have a thriving night life.

Oliver said: “We have a cultural night-time offering but we don’t have any offering otherwise – not like Beaconsfield does.”

Could higher quality dining options be the way forward?

Chris Harvey said: “We need to have restaurants. We have Eat Thai – that’s the closest to a restaurant in the town. Otherwise we have fast food outlets.”

Michael Garvey agreed this was an important factor: “I’ve always felt the food offering in Eden was a bit of an afterthought – under the archway and by the bus station. I’ve never thought the food offering was right. It’s not enough of a critical mass to draw people into the town.”

Bringing in business – a vision of town centre office buildings

Prosperity means investment, and investment means attracting more businesses. While Wycombe has lots of small businesses, there is a lack of major firms making the town centre their home.

Michael said: “The biggest challenge Wycombe faces is in attracting businesses.”

He added that there was a frustratingly circular situation in play which saw institutions that fund office developments pass over Wycombe because it did not have the track record for offices of, say, Maidenhead.

While the development coming to Handy Cross was welcome, he said, it was effectively a motorway hub that would not improve the town centre itself. And the pressures of housing need and green belt development would not help either.

He said: “Somebody needs to take a chance on Wycombe.

“It needs visionary thought. There’s a tension between demand for housing and delivering offices speculatively.”

Cllr McCarthy noted that very point was one that would soon be discussed through the consultation on the Wycombe Local Plan, which is aiming to find spaces to build up to 10,000 homes over the next 15 years.

The Octagon Court area, and that around the railway station were both mentioned as places with potential for office developments.

And, Michael said, the time was coming to reconsider the prospect of developing on the AONB and green belt – land designations set down when the district faced very different pressures to those of today.

Where next? Short term ideas to feed long-term plans

Michael said: “As an aspiring town in an entrepreneurial county we should be saying ‘forget the money, forget the cost – let’s be visionary.’”

Cllr McCarthy stressed the council would welcome such thinking, but the local authority could not act on it alone. The will may be there, but money was needed to enact any grand plans.

Engagement with all aspects of the community was a key to future success, all agreed – get residents and businesses on board with future plans and the battle for a successful future would be well underway.

Other matters were flagged up that all currently conspired to create the wrong impression of the town, from the dreary landscaping of Frogmoor to the battered paving around Wycombe.

The recent Automatic Numberplate Recognition car parking scheme was a great move, all thought, and one other towns could be envious of – helping visitors to Wycombe feel more comfortable in their stay.

The suggestion of having pop-up restaurants in Frogmoor for shorter periods of time was made by Oliver, and welcomed by Cllr McCarthy. This could gauge enthusiasm for a dining theme for Frogmoor before long-term and costly commitments were made toward that end..

Major changes to the town centre – particularly the Frogmoor and Queen’s Square areas, were not just desirable, it was agreed – they are essential. And bold moves may be needed to make them happen for the good of the town.

Michael said: “Sometimes you have to force change – it won’t just happen organically.”

More Business Forum events are being planned for this year, and will be reported by the BFP.