OPINION: Green Lanes - Friend or Foe?

North Devon Gazette

The announcement that North Devon Council has just acquired Green Lanes is a major statement from the local authority of their commitment to protecting and future proofing Barnstaple’s Town Centre.

The council has acquired this asset through a public funding source (the Public Works Loan Board). Â This is a funding and investment source designed to assist Local Authorities to grow their asset and infrastructure base.

The funding is designed to provide cost effective capital at highly discounted interest rates to ensure that capital repayments are manageable and that long term investments can arise following the initial acquisition.Â

Many might worry that an investment of this type and indeed the use of public money should be ring fenced for community uses generally and also for further development of local needs housing. Â Others might also say, that this is a risky investment as high streets have suffered a huge decline, particularly since Covid.Â

This decline had in fact already started a number of years ago with the huge increases in consumers use of online shopping. Â In 2020, online activity averaged around 20% (one of the highest figures in Europe and even ahead of the United States).Â

During Covid, these figures rose to around 35%. Â They have recently fallen back to around 27% of total retail spend. Â It is clear, however, that this trend is now unstoppable and could well reach 40% within the next 5 years.Â

Against this background, the question of whether the council have made a wise decision in buying what could be a declining asset is an obvious concern. As if often the case, timing is everything in the property world.Â

The acquisition price represents a significant discount to that which might have been required just three years ago. Â The basic decision therefore, that the cost of acquisition and the income the centre will generate, is fully justified and this will provide the local authority with income to reinvest within the local community and, particularly, to bring forward other Town Centre opportunities.Â

This decision, however, is far more significant than just a property transaction. Â The Council have, in my view, made exactly the right decision. They have made a clear commitment to the heart of the business community in Barnstaple.Â

This investment will give confidence to other business owners and current and future investors, that Barnstaple’s High Street has a future.Â

This will undoubtedly assist in the Levelling-Up agenda, which we hear a lot about from Whitehall but see little of in terms of meaningful action.  This project will be very complimentary to Barnstaple’s recently won Future High Street funding award.Â

This will be the moment where opportunities for local traders to engage will be dramatically increased. For too long shopping centres across the South West have seen the same facias from national retail groups. In many cases, it proved difficult to differentiate whether you were in Barnstaple or Brentford.Â

Now there is a real chance for the Barnstaple Brand to be firmly established in the Heart of the Town. This in itself will encourage a whole new generation of local makers, with their distinctive products. This undoubtedly is therefore a great decision by the authority and something which in years to come will be recognised as the step change that reversed an almost inevitable slow decline of the centre had it remained in private sector ownership.Â

The businesses and consumers in North Devon should now vote with their feet to support this great initiative.