TUNBRIDGE WELLS could wake up one day to find itself a dormitory town unless action is taken to promote the town’s business environment it is claimed.
Amal Uddin, who runs the chartered surveying firm AU Consultancy and is also a member of Grey’s Inn, warned the companies operating in the town are facing numerous ‘challenges’ that over time could cripple its commercial activity unless resolved.
In an interview with the Times, the consultant – who has experience in advising local authorities across the UK, including our own – also said he was willing to ‘put his money where his mouth is’ to establish a new organisation to represent the town’s business community.
“This town has been around for a long time and will be around for even longer but I am concerned with the massive changes being passed through such as rates, increasing car parking costs and the conversion of office space into residential.
“Tunbridge Wells, being quite a special town, has manage to survive some of these challenges but it is not for the want of massive amounts of burdens being placed upon it,” he said, adding out of town and online retail are other factors that are affecting businesses.
Mr Uddin said towns benefit from a critical mass of local businesses operating in the same area, but once an exodus of companies starts it can be nearly impossible to reverse.
“Rather than increase car parking charges, why not offer them a percentage discount to pass on to their employees?”
“If a business’s finds the challenges of having its operations in the town centre is too tough, once it ups and leaves to go elsewhere you will be lucky to ever see it again. The town will be poorer for it,” he said, adding successful areas benefit from a ‘critical mass’ of companies and their staff interacting with each other. If companies leave, it can have a detrimental effect on those left behind, meaning they too may look elsewhere for better opportunities or end up folding.
“The business community needs support. Take car parking, if a company in town is employing ten people it is potentially bringing ten people every day into town which will then go and shop, eat or use other services offered by other companies or retailers. Business brings business.
“Rather than increase car parking charges, why not offer them a percentage discount to pass on to their employees? That makes it attractive for businesses to locate here. It is a very easy win and in turn will generate lots of other income sources for the town.”
Mr Uddin acknowledges that many anti-business measures ‘are out of the hands of local authorities’ but highlighted parking as one area they could have direct control over and be more proactive.
Another area which they have control over is planning, particularly the loss of office space. Recent conversions of former office blocks into residential units are exacerbating the situation, he said.
“The town is increasingly challenging for companies which need office space, particularly suitable office space but more and more is released to residential. Once its gone you will never get it back.
“There needs to be a much more balanced approach taken. You do not just lose a businesses you lose multiple businesses and the people who work there.
“That kind of energy is not the kind of thing you will replace with apartments. Even if you did, what are these people going to do in the evening if all the commercial premises have shut down?”
Part of the problem, in Mr Uddin’s view, is what he sees is a lack of business acumen by those who work in local councils, meaning the needs of companies are often overlooked.
This in turn creates a distorted view of what is best for the town. And although Mr Uddin admits central government policy leaves local authorities in ‘a catch 22’ much of the time, he thinks much could be achieved if they took a constructive approach to working with the town’s business community.
He said: “Many of those who work in the council, I say this with respect, are people with a great understanding of how local authorities work and how the system works.
“But they are not people who have run businesses, employed people, stay awake at night wondering if their business will be profitable after the next rent. These challenges are the things business people deal with every day and they should not be overlooked.”
Helping businesses worried about the rise in rates is one area where the council could try and make the most of a bad hand Mr Uddin believes.
“The town needs a body to represent the commercial community”
“The council has to take a sympathetic approach and say ‘right we know we have been passed down this particular scenario, but how can we approach it in a way that makes sure our business community will not be damaged in a way which will not result in them folding’.
“This does not take a lot of financial resources, it needs an attitude and a policy. It has to come from the top. From the leader and chief executive down.”
But ultimately, in order to affect the sort of change businesses leaders want will mean that they too have to be proactive in fighting for it, Mr Uddin said.
To this end, he is looking to establish a new group to represent all aspects of commerce within the town and ensure their voice is heard when policy is being made.
For Mr Uddin, the current set up is simply not working.
“The town needs a body to represent the commercial community which is singly concerned with issues that affect them, be it a small shop, solicitors, hotel, retail shop. That is something massively lacking in this town and this town more than any needs it.”
Organisations such as Royal Tunbridge Wells Together do not fulfil the role he has in mind because, for him, they do not take an active role in lobbying for policy changes.
He highlighted the fact that when major planning applications are due to be considered they often refer to the views sought from the relevant authorities, alongside those of residential groups, parishes, utilities, special interest groups and others – but never a collective business group.
“When proposals are submitted to convert offices into residential units, or when car park changes are increased, there should be consultation with the business community.
“Ultimately everyone wants what is best for the town, but if that is the case you cannot disengage one aspect; be it the council, residents, the civic society, or businesses from one another. It is a symbiotic relationship and all should be involved.”
He is also prepared to put in the legwork to ensure such a group exists if there is enough support.
“For what it is worth if I need to I will have to put my money where my mouth is. I have been talking to other established business owners and not a single person has said it is a bad idea. People are thinking the same things but there is not a vehicle to harness all of these views and concerns and present all these things in a way that allows a discussion and debate to be had.
“Businesses on the whole will almost always generate employment. How can that be a bad thing for the community? To push them away from a town, surely that is an own goal?”