From the chamber - supporting our town

24 Feb 2024
David Cornish

On Sunday 18th Feb, I spent most of the day in Wokingham Town Centre with a lot of other residents to enjoy the celebrations of the Lunar New Year. The town was absolutely buzzing and places selling food and drink were packed. It was a great tribute to Wokingham Town Council who put a huge effort into making it happen.

This was great to see, because since I became the executive member for business and economic development, the state of our town centres has been very much top of my mind. In fact, businesses across the borough are feeling the impact of the cost-of-living crisis which is reducing consumer spending and the continued inflation in the economy which is pushing up costs. The borough council is in the process of updating its whole business strategy for the borough as we look to, hopefully, some better economic times ahead. The first focus of this new strategy will be to look at our town centres and to see what can be done to improve their vibrancy. Town centres across the country have been changing dramatically over the last 50 years.

The boom in retail parks in the 80’s and 90’s brought massive changes, as we stopped going into town for our groceries and DIY needs. Now changes in technology over the last decade have moved the goalposts again. Only ten years ago, we used to go to town to use the bank, to post letters, and have our hair cut, as well as picking up many of many everyday items and sometimes those special one-off purchases. Now we do most of those things on the Internet, and even many hairdressers have set up their own home-based salons as a result of the pandemic.

This begs the question: what are our town centres for now, and what do we want them to be in the future?
Increasingly a town centre visit is a social event, as we can see by the growth in coffee shops and eating places. Successful town centres also have some of those specialist shops which draw people in for things which they can't buy elsewhere. But
these changes are still taking place and the final future identity of town centres is far from certain. Our new town centre strategy, which will be produced in partnership with the town and parish councils, will examine all of these changes and identify
things that the council can do to help bring about the town centre of the future.

But although important, town centres are only part of the economic picture. The new growth in the creative industries is particularly exciting. The council has worked hard with the developers to bring about the new film studios at Winnersh and Shinfield. These don’t just offer jobs for actors, directors and film crews, but for many other trades who help build the film sets, the hospitality industry that services them, and many office and clerical jobs as well. These are all good high-quality jobs and they're very welcome in the borough.

As well as the studios, the borough is home to a number of multinational companies, many involved in the technology industries. Most of these don't need active support from the council but they do need local workers, as do many large organisations in the care sector. The focus of the council will be to connect those offering employment with people looking for a job and helping them with the basic skills that they will need to be successful. The council has run a number of successful job fairs and training courses for those seeking to enter the workforce.

All those small businesses tucked away on little industrial estates are another vital part of our economy. They provide incredibly diverse local employment, and our business strategy will link in with a new local plan to ensure that modern but small industrial units serve these businesses in the locations that they need to be in.

Then there is our hidden workforce; that great army of people who work from home. Some may be startup businesses whilst others have relocated to homeworking from city centre offices. Working from home brings its own challenges and the council will
be reaching out to these people to see what we can do to make it easier, be that being sympathetic to an office in the garden, or encouraging those small local cafes where people nip out to get a drink with their laptop!

And finally, we need to think about our countryside businesses. Wokingham was once a rural borough, but our few remaining farmers feel increasingly isolated in our more urbanised environment. There are also a number of equine businesses and others who also have a business in the countryside. These businesses help protect our green spaces and although few in number, it's part of my job to make sure council policies help them feel secure.

Putting that together requires a lot of research and a close working partnership with businesses and our town and parish councils. Knowing where we can help, and where we need to get out of the way, is vital if we are to make the most of our very
scarce resources helping all our businesses go forward. We hope to have more to say about this later in the spring.

Cllr David Cornish, Finchampstead South Ward, Executive Member for Business and Economic Development