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New vision for Exeter city centre unveiled

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

By Anne Byrne

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CITY leaders have unveiled their vision for the future of Exeter city centre over the next 10 years.

It aims to maintain the economic momentum of recent years marked by the completion of Princesshay and the arrival of John Lewis.

And it wants the city to grow as a thriving regional centre for shops, businesses and culture.

The strategy document unveiled today by the city council aims to tackle the growing threats to the High Street caused by internet shopping and the struggling national retail sector.

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Exeter is currently ranked 38 in the top 50 UK retail centres. The council wants to see it in the top 30 – an aim which could be achieved through the huge redevelopment of Exeter bus station.

The blueprint also highlights how the city's night-time economy could be enhanced and made safer and how the Quay and Fore Street can be better linked to the city centre.

It calls for new park and ride sites, the introduction of community toilets and finding corporate sponsors for the city's Christmas lights.

Councillor Pete Edwards (pictured), leader of the city council, said the document is a discussion paper and he said he wanted everyone who has an interest in Exeter to get involved in the debate.

"This is ongoing from Princesshay to now the bus station and we are consulting everybody about what they want to see in their city in the future," he said.

"I am asking everybody to respond to the consultation – businesses and members of the community."

He said the council is hopeful of getting regional growth funding to kick-start the redevelopment of the bus station.

And the Government's New Homes Bonus – which rewards authorities for building houses – will help fund a new city pool.

Cllr Edwards said: "If the bus station goes ahead then it will be up to the city council to provide the swimming pool and leisure centre part of that.

"Everything is up for grabs in this discussion about the future of the city, that's why we want everyone to be involved."

A key element of the strategy is to hold another ballot for the establishment of a Business Improvement District in the city centre. If approved the proposal would see all except those with the smallest premises paying a compulsory levy which could raise around £700,000 a year.

Another ballot could be held in the autumn after a vote in June 2011 drew a negative response from businesses.

Cllr Edwards said: "The BID is very important for the city.

"The city council and the county council delivered the large infrastructure necessary for the improved Paris Street/Sidwell Street junction and the changes to the John Lewis car park.

"But having a BID would mean businesses could spend their own money on what they wanted to improve things.

"Business rates have been collected locally but go straight to the national government which returns a modest amount to the local authority.

"A BID would allow businesses in the city centre to raise funding and they would have complete discretion over what it is spent on – in other words, a mechanism for business to direct money to the issues they believe need to be addressed."

He said developing Exeter's cultural quarter was also a key way of enhancing the city centre in the years to come.

"The area around the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Central Library and Rougemont Gardens is becoming a cultural centre but we are keen other areas of the city develop their own identities too and have lots of things going on," he said.

"The city council can help but these areas have to do things to help themselves as well – and we can already see this happening in Magdalen Road and in St Thomas which is planning to hold a festival in the autumn."

Karime Hassan, one of the city's strategic directors, said it was important that threats to the long-term viability of the city centre are addressed.

He said: "We have seen the disappearance of familiar names from the High Street.

"The impact of internet sales against a backdrop of a struggling economy has resulted in vacant shops and reduced footfall.

"Exeter, in comparison with most centres, has performed remarkably well and we believe the centre can go from strength to strength cementing its position as the dominant regional shopping centre.

"The strategy sets out our planned actions to bring forward the development of the Exeter Bus and Coach Station site, to improve the gateway entrances to the city centre and to support a welcoming and vibrant evening economy, providing more restaurants, cafes and leisure facilities that will improve the appeal of the centre later into the evenings.

"Looking ahead, the financial context will be more challenging than it has been in the past and we are looking for the private sector to engage and reflect on how we can work together to implement the vision.

"A key question will be whether there is an appetite to pursue the Business Improvement District as this could unlock funding to tackle some of the priorities identified by the local businesses.

"The strategy represents the beginning of our discussion with the business community and key stakeholders."

The discussion paper will be considered at Exeter's Economy Scrutiny Committee on January 17, before being considered by the city's Executive later in the month.

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