Bricks and Mortar: Brightwells must look to the crafts

By David Howell   |   Planning and property correspondent   |
Sunday 5th July 2020 3:05 pm
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Could Brightwells accommodate a Soho House-style membership club for small businesses? ()

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WHAT a month! Would you believe so much could happen in four weeks? Would you believe so many retailers could go to the wall in four weeks? Where do you think retailing will go next? So many questions.

* Brightwells

Last week’s report ended with Brightwells, so no surprise that this week I start there. The Farnham Society challenged the development, campaigned and raised tens of thousands of pounds, went to the High Court but lost because the judge ruled the appellants, councillors and long-term residents of Farnham didn’t have sufficient legal standing.

We still dislike the development intensely but want it to succeed for the good of Farnham.

* Residents take the initiative

So, what would succeed? The bricks and mortar retail sector is crashing – the shopping centre giant Intu going into administration is another example.

Farnham has to take the initiative – at the moment Surrey and Crest don’t appear to be doing that, although they should. And they should be very worried – but hey, it’s not their money, its ours.

During the course of the past five weeks there have been several letters to the Herald suggesting uses for the Brightwells retail space. One was clearly satirical but nonetheless portrayed potentially possible scenarios.

I have been talking to a local lecturer in retailing and various residents about the possibilities. Here are some of the thoughts that resulted.

* World Craft City

We must take full advantage of any opportunities that develop, or can be developed, from the town’s newly-awarded position as World Craft City by the World Craft Council.

Single or adjoining shopping units could be combined to form a craft-oriented space to demonstrate, display and sell locally-made art of all forms. West Kilbride, Craft Town Scotland have their Barony Centre. We could do the same within Brightwells.

Alternatively, and much needed, a space for community use or even a privately-operated business hub or two.

The UCA and the New Ashgate Gallery could be encouraged to further coordinate with the town and set up pop-up demonstration and sales spaces, similar to that in South Street at Christmas in 2018. They could also promote short courses in craft skills, which there appears to be an opportunity for.

Space could be used to explore and promote shared talent and experiences, overlapping with the Maltings’ programme. The New Ashgate Galley could consider creating something that complements what they have in Lower Church Lane, on the west side of town.

* Commercially

Thinking commercially, space could be used for creating experiences coupled with sales opportunities. For example, an ironmonger’s store with tradesmen demonstrating basic DIY skills, training in sustainable living, upcycling and selling sustainable products or, as a council officer has suggested, bicycle repairs and maintenance classes, and selling bicycle parts.

There could be opportunities for mother-and-baby classes, with sales of premium products now Mothercare are no more.

Then, how about combining adjacent spaces to form a membership-type use, Soho House being a good model?

Companies will be operating in new ways now working from home has been seen as a way forward. Membership could be in tiered levels, offering meeting spaces, preventing the need for companies to rent offices.

Spaces of different sizes could be offered, providing basic but quality catering, maybe open to non-members, a hub for networking, effectively a new business platform.

* Want to be there

The ethos of the development should mean residents and visitors want to be there.

The atmosphere of each unit should be warm and welcoming, not sterile, providing an experience to enjoy.

The emphasis for spaces used in multiple occupation should be quality and excellence, and occupiers should be required to follow guidance on presentation both in unit windows and inside. ‘Will do’ is not acceptable.

* What do you think?

If Crest or Surrey won’t engage with us residents, we will take our thoughts to them.

Let the Herald know what you think by emailing [email protected] with ‘Bricks and Mortar’ in the subject line.

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