The Way Forward for Leatherhead Town Centre
Professor John Whitelegg BA, PhD, FCIT, FILT, FRSA
Managing Director of
Eco-Logica Ltd, Lancaster
Professor in the University of York and
Leader of the Implementing Sustainability Group, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York
26th June 2002

This html version is provided by Leatherhead AHEAD. A pdf version is provided by SCC.

The structure of this report is as follows:
Section 1: Introduction
Section 2: The Views of Representative Groups and Individuals
Section 3: The Issues: Hard Evidence and Best Practice
Section 4: The Way Forward

Section 1: Introduction
1 Professor Whitelegg was commissioned in May 2002 to advise on the way forward for Leatherhead town centre. The commission included instructions to carry out site visits, meet local groups and key stakeholders, assimilate the background material, chair a public meeting on 19th June and produce a short report setting out the key issues, taking into account all views and suggesting ways forward.

2 The key issues have been very well summarised by the group "Leatherhead Ahead" in their presentations and in discussion with Professor Whitelegg on the 19th June. The issues are: the decline of retailing and concerns about the closure of shops and restaurants, the inadequacy of current parking arrangements to satisfy and support retail demand and the lack of adequate access for car-borne shoppers and visitors to the High St. The construction of the "water feature" at the bottom of High St has very clearly acted as a stimulant and a focal point for all these issues and has generated, what by national standards is a significant campaign of opposition to the water feature.

3 Leatherhead is well served by a large number of representative organisations and it is very important that all views are taken into account in establishing a way forward for Leatherhead town centre. This is done in Section 2 below where I set out the views, concerns and aspirations of all those groups who responded to the invitation to meet me on the afternoon of the 19th and to make presentations in the public meeting.

Section 2: The Views of Representative Groups and Individuals
In this section I will report the views of those groups who met me on the afternoon of the 19th, made presentations at the public meeting and/or provided documentation.

A Stakeholder Meetings on the afternoon of 19th June

Mole Valley Access Group
This group made the point that about 10% of the national population experience mobility/access difficulties of some kind. The proportion is higher in Leatherhead. This group requires careful thought and design to ensure that it is not disenfranchised through inappropriate urban design and transport policies. There is a particular problem in Leatherhead with unauthorised use of disabled persons parking bays.

Leatherhead Society
This group has carried out a survey of its members showing a majority in favour of retaining pedestrianisation on High St and against opening cross roads to through traffic. In answer to the question “do you wish the roads and cross roads to be restored and fully re-opened to traffic” 16 answered “yes” and 57 “no”. In answer to the question “do you wish just Church St to North St to be re-opened to traffic” 32 answered “yes” and 57 “no”. The Society opposes the water feature and is of the view that environmental works (Phase 2) do not address the fundamental problems of Leatherhead. Lack of short term parking is a problem and the Society would like to see Leret Way improved with shopping frontage.

Leatherhead Ahead
This is an independent group without party political affiliation. It is concerned with the vitality and commercial success of Leatherhead and strongly opposed to the water feature and current approaches to solving Leatherhead's problems, which (in its view) do not address the fundamental problems of the town. Leatherhead Ahead have organised a petition of 4000 names which calls for a stop to the water feature, restoration of “our crossroads” and “give us back our town”. The group is strongly of the view that the fundamental problems of Leatherhead are not being effectively tackled by the local authorities and that urgent action is needed to:

* Increase the amount of short term parking
* Open up the Church St/North St link
* Permit vehicle access to the High St whilst retaining pedestrianisation
* Introduce 2 –way traffic on Leret Way and Bull Hill
* Improve pedestrian access to the High St from Leret Way

Leatherhead and District Countryside Protection Society
This group has a strong interest in the town. Through a trust it owns 2 historic buildings and an island in the River Mole. The group emphasised the distinctive character of a small market town like Leatherhead. There is a parking problem and more parking spaces are needed. There is also a problem with a hotel development in the town, which excludes parking provision in the development brief. Leret Way is in need of attention to improve its attractiveness.

This group supports the visually impaired residents of Leatherhead. It emphasised the importance of design to take into account the needs of this group giving detailed guidance. It also wants the town to be lively and successful.

Leatherhead Community Association
This group has concerns about the use of residential roads for parking by those who work in the town. It also has concerns about the High St if it is opened up to more traffic (eg pavement width, control, monitoring and enforcement). It takes the view that the water feature will be a “white elephant”. It supports a Church St/North St link with a mini roundabout and 2-way traffic on Bull Hill. It suggested that parking restrictions could be applied in the 0800-0930 period to deter employee parking on residential streets. It is very concerned about the decline of shops, the lack of adequate short-term parking and street furniture clutter.

The Bookhams Residents Association
This organisation submitted a letter dated 11th June 2002 and sent apologies that they could not attend in person on the 19th June. It would like to see:
* Improved footpath access between Cornhill car park and the High St
* A new “attraction” in the town centre eg cinema, bowling alley
* Examine “what makes a town centre successful”
* Try and improve access between some of the strengths of the town eg pedestrian access between the river, the town centre park and the station
* Encourage a hotel/conference facility to locate in the town
* Make more use of the Mansion House grounds
* Signpost and promote a riverside walk between Town Bridge and Thorncroft Manor
* Increase short term parking near the town centre eg outside Barclays Bank
* There are too many disabled parking bays in the multi-storey car park “as most remain empty”
* The ramp by Sainsbury’s is of inadequate width for comfortable wheelchair access

The group also emphasised that there was concern about the cost and potential for vandalism associated with the water feature but no consensus as to whether or not the High St should be opened to traffic

B Presentations at the Public Meeting

Presentations were made by 8 organisations:
* Leatherhead Ahead
* Leatherhead and District Chamber of Commerce (video)
* Churches together in Leatherhead
* Leatherhead Society
* Leatherhead Town Centre Forum
* Mole Valley Access Group
* Leatherhead Community Association
* Burns and Nice

Leatherhead Ahead re-emphasised points made earlier in the day. The group feels strongly that not enough has been done to implement recommendations of other studies/reports eg the 1996 report "Leatherhead Town Centre Regeneration Strategy and Action Plan" by the Civic Trust Regeneration Unit. The group is strongly of the view that the fundamental problems of Leatherhead are being ignored and the situation is being made worse (eg by the water feature).

Leatherhead and District Chamber of Commerce showed a video highlighting York's approach to regeneration and retailing vitality

Churches Together in Leatherhead wants to see a very lively and healthy town centre but is concerned about the lack of parking provision and about the need to create better access to the High St and to the town centre. The presentation likened the water feature to an 18th century folly.

The Leatherhead Society re-emphasised points made earlier in the day and reported on the survey. This organisation is concerned about the water feature and the need to revitalise Leatherhead.

Leatherhead Town Centre Forum. This presentation focussed on the importance of working together to solve problems and developing the role of the Forum as a mechanism for revitalising the town centre.

Mole Valley Access Group focussed on the role of the built environment in determining the degree of access that disabled people can have to the town centre. This group is probably 11% of the population and has money to spend. Disabled people need accessible and safe facilities. A similar point was made about the elderly who account for approximately 16% of the population of Leatherhead. Misuse of parking bays designated for disabled people is a problem. This group welcomes the decriminalisation of parking in Mole Valley and wants to see improvements in parking generally.

Leatherhead Community Association emphasised parking problems and other difficulties in the vicinity of the Institute. The organisation wants to improve access to facilities and classes in the Institute.

Burns and Nice (Design Consultants) made a presentation explaining the principles and objectives of environmental improvements and the thinking behind future work.

C The Question and Answer Session at the Public Meeting
1 The questioner raised the issue of the "nonsense of the water feature" and met with strong support from a large audience. He also complained that too much money was spent on Dorking.

2 The questioner ran a small business and reassured the audience that he was not leaving the town. He raised the issue of councillors and highway people not being present. He was reassured that they were present in large numbers.

3 The questioner raised the issue of "8 foot walls" as part of the design of the water feature. He was also concerned about the possibility of vandalism. He likes the idea of 2-way traffic on Bull Hill. The walls are not 8 foot high; they are 3 foot high.

4 The questioner wanted an explanation of why a bus lane had been proposed near her home. She was promised a written reply and this has been done.

5 The questioner was concerned about the use of outside experts when local people quite clearly knew the answers. A reply was given explaining that the views of local people were of great importance but it was still necessary to engage with those who could bring best practice and wide international experience to bear on the issues under discussion in Leatherhead

6 The questioner was concerned about the loss of shops and the possibility of losing the Post Office. He thought the residents of Leatherhead had been "duped" over the way town centre matters had been handled. He was of the opinion that the water feature should be levelled and then at a later stage the question of opening up streets to traffic should be considered. He was very disappointed that officers were not present. Note: officers were present.

7 The questioner made comparisons with Guildford, which has a pedestrianised High St of some character with limited access by traffic. The steep gradient was also thought to be not a problem for disabled people.

8 The questioner referred to the fact that 12 shops had already shut and another 3 had announced closure. What is the council going to do about it eg halve the rent, get a butchers shop, wet fish shop etc. Note: a full account of recent changes in the status of premises in the town centre has been given by the Town Centre Manager

9 The questioner was sceptical about bus lanes when he hadn't seen a bus! He was concerned that councillors did not listen and wanted to know if any other town or city had behaved in a similar way to the Leatherhead case.

10 The questioner wanted to see councillors and officers on the stage

11 The questioner was concerned that residents, shopkeepers and businesses had given up in despair

12 The questioner was concerned about the multi-storey car park..'it should be pulled down and the job started again from scratch’

13 The questioner wanted to see a Guildford style hopper bus up the High St (cheap, clean and regular)

14 The questioner wanted to see a real vision..'not tinkering around the edges.’ He complained of a lack of leadership

15 The questioner was concerned that we should all protect the interests/needs of children

16 The questioner said we should not have the water feature..'this is the consensus in the town. It has to go!’

17 The questioner was of the view that the High St is a complete and utter mess; no one wants to come here. The water feature is not needed and not wanted.

Section 3: Issues
The stakeholder meetings, the public meeting and the questioning in the public meeting have clearly identified a small number of core issues. These are now briefly examined under the following headings:
* Consensus
* Parking provision and retail viability
* Public participation
* Access and footfall

The most remarkable aspect of this very vigorous discussion around the future of Leatherhead is the total commitment of all concerned to a successful, lively and flourishing town centre. Leatherhead is very fortunate to have such large numbers of people willing to turn up at public meetings, debate the issues and apply intelligence and enthusiasm to solutions. All the stakeholder groups are to be congratulated on their organisational and creative input and the two local authorities have also devoted a great deal of time and effort to solving problems which are essentially national problems of High St retail vitality in an environment where the main “drivers” are supermarkets, shopping centre companies and developers. A key task for all groups in Leatherhead is to work together towards the objective of a dynamic and successful town centre. I return to this point in the final section of this report.

Parking Provision and Retail Vitality
Almost everyone involved in this debate is concerned about the closure of shops, the lack of a good local butcher or wet fish shop and the decline of traditional High St functions. Sadly this is a national problem and not something peculiar to Leatherhead. 277,000 shops have closed since 1945. Retailing has changed fundamentally. People's shopping behaviour has changed fundamentally and they do not support High St shops with enough of their spending to make sure that they remain attractive and viable. Many towns and cities in the UK have been hit very badly by the growth of out of town shopping and the successes of town centre/edge of town centre supermarkets like Sainsbury’s who can offer 25,000 different products in one pleasant “one stop” environment. Surrey has one of the highest rates of car ownership and use in the UK which brings with it a wider search and shop strategy which disadvantages local shops. The high level of mobility of 2 car owning households in Surrey makes the Surrey problem more difficult than many other areas of the UK. The development of centres like the Swan Centre which whilst central to the town still attract customers away from a traditional High St environment and adds to the problems of High St shops. These are difficult circumstances for local traders, local councils and local residents who whilst valuing their traditional High St shops spend a significant proportion of their disposable income elsewhere.

All towns and cities in the UK are trying to improve the viability of their traditional High St, city/town centre shopping environments. They do this through a number of basic approaches:
1 Cultural, artistic, festival, theatre, literary and musical events and specialist functions eg Lancaster’s Maritime Festival

2 The development of special quarters with high quality design eg The Calls in Leeds, jewellery quarter in Birmingham or the Lanes in Carlisle. These celebrate local history, local products, local archaeology and bring people back into town centre flats and apartments

3 High quality urban design and giving the town/city back to the people eg Birmingham with its splendid pedestrian spaces, squares, canal side developments and removal of roads and parking that brought traffic into the city centre in the 1960s Bull Ring development phase

4 Loyalty card schemes to encourage local people who value the High St to back that up with spending in shops in the High St

5 High quality access to bring large numbers of people into the town eg Park and Ride in York, Oxford and Guildford, cycle routes in York, free shuttle bus in Guildford and Chester

There is no “magic bullet” that can solve the kind of problems faced by Leatherhead but equally it is important to learn from the experience of other places. Key lessons include:
1 Creating a high quality, traffic free environment will encourage more people to use the streets and spend more money in the cafes, restaurants and specialist shops. People do not like to spend time in an environment dominated by traffic (noise, smell, pollution, traffic danger, cars parking and leaving their parking bays).

2 There is no evidence at all that providing more parking spaces in a town centre will improve retail viability or attract more shoppers (see Michael Carley "Sustainable Transport and Retail Vitality. State of the Art for towns and cities" (1996) published jointly with Donaldsons (ISBN 1 901500 00 4)

3 Providing more parking spaces (as opposed to better use of existing spaces and transferring employee parking into shopper parking) will attract more cars leading to a deterioration in the quality of the environment (congestion, pollution, danger, smell)

4 Opening up streets to through traffic will encourage "rat running" and the creation of new car trips (newly generated traffic) to the detriment of road safety, amenity, quality of the environment and health. Great care has to be taken in Surrey where the potential for significant rat running to avoid perceived/actual congestion hot spots is amongst the highest in the UK.

Public Participation
The environmental works in Phase 1 and Phase 2 (including the water feature) were part of a public consultation exercise carried out approximately two years ago. Much of the opposition to the water feature has emerged since the letting of contracts and the commencement of work. Local residents do have genuinely held beliefs that their views have not been taken into account and that the local authorities have acted in a high handed manner. This has produced a serious breakdown in trust and confidence between citizens, councillors and officers. As serious as this is it is also important to recognise that the local authorities have acted in good faith and followed normal practice in the ways these town centre works were publicised and put out to consultation. There are lessons for the future from this experience:
1 Consultation should take place within an agreed time scale, which is related to the start date for the project itself. The long period of inactivity between the original consultation and the start of the work is a problem. Many will have forgotten what it was all about, a proportion of the population will have left and new residents moved in, circumstances will have changed eg with respect to the closure of shops. In future it would be advisable for a new consultation to take place if the time lag is likely to be more than 12 months

2 Consultation should involve direct contact with households and not the "hit and miss" approach of exhibitions, adverts in newspapers etc. Systematic surveys, carefully collated and reported to councillors are the basic building blocks of consultation

3 Feedback is all important. If any individual resident or organisation has strong views which are not fully incorporated into detailed scheme design then they should be contacted and told the reason.

4 Businesses are very important especially were schemes involve town centres. Each business should be contacted directly by an officer and shown the scheme(s) in detail. Views should be collected and collated and presented to councillors. Detailed feedback should take place

5 Organisations are important and should be offered the same facility as businesses. This includes the Chamber of Commerce, all amenity/conservation groups and all groups working on behalf of disabled people.

Access and Footfall
At the public meeting the Leatherhead and District Chamber of Commerce showed a video of York. This was a good choice. York is generally acknowledged to be a best practice example of how to go about dealing with access, sustainable transport and retail vitality. The city works very well and is very attractive to local residents, visitors and shoppers. It is much bigger than Leatherhead and benefits from a large number of tourists but I agree with the Chamber that there are lessons to be learnt from York.

York's main objective is to reduce the disadvantages of car based transport (noise, danger, pollution) whilst attracting more people into York. Retailers often refer to this objective of getting more people into a town centre as increasing footfall. What really matters is how many people (and not cars) are walking up and down the High St and taking time to shop, eat a meal, visit a museum/art gallery etc.

York has an excellent cycling strategy, a footstreets strategy and a Park and Ride strategy. Over 1 million people leave their cars outside York and use the Park and Ride to get into the city centre. The City Council has a target to get this up to 1.75 million by the end of the plan period. York is a successful retailing environment and city centre because it is so successful at getting people into the centre and creating a high quality environment.

York has established a transport hierarchy, which influences its policy. The list puts pedestrians and disabled people at the top and car users at the bottom. Cars are discouraged in York. Pedestrianisation has been extended and two city centre car parks have been closed. Traffic through the city centre and over the river bridges has continued to decline.

York sees transport plans for businesses as a key part of this approach. Similarly a great deal of work has also been done by Surrey County Council in Guildford to reduce car use by employees. In York there is a target of getting car use for the journey to work down to 47% by 2006. In Leatherhead this approach would release car-parking spaces for shoppers.

It is acknowledged that York, Chester, Guildford and Oxford are much bigger than Leatherhead and that a conventional Park and Ride facility may not work as well in a smaller market town. This is a matter for detailed evaluation. The advantages of creating high quality traffic free environments at all sizes of town is well supported by research (see the Michael Carley report) and in Kendal (population about 20,000) part of the main one way system is being pedestrianised and park and rode sites are under consideration.

A successful town centre in Leatherhead depends on increasing access and footfall. The objective is to get more people into the town and not to get more cars into the town.

Section 4: The Way Forward
I have several recommendations to make all of which have a very clear objective of putting into place measures and procedures which can deliver retail vitality and attractiveness to Leatherhead town centre. The recommendations are forward looking and based on the observation that this town has many important assets which include the vigour, enthusiasm and intelligent creativity of its residents. The recommendations also reflect current best practice in transport as set out in government guidance, the Surrey Local Transport Plan, international experience and the Michael Carley report which is endorsed by one of the UK's leading property/retailing consultants (Donaldsons). The recommendations are presented below in tabular form. They are based on the principle of shared responsibility and partnership.

The following symbols are used at the start of a recommendation:
C = this should be done by one or both Councils
S = this should be done by the shops, the traders and their representative organisations
LA = this should be done by Leatherhead Ahead
AG = this should be done by all the representative groups, community groups and action groups

Recommendation C: this should be done by one or both Councils
The two councils (Mole Valley District Council and Surrey County Council) should appoint a person who can command respect and authority to be the main point of contact on all the issues raised in this report. This one person would be in contact with the media, with the residents, with the traders and would have the remit of delivering in a co-ordinated manner all regeneration, environmental, retailing and transport policies in Leatherhead
Reason The structure of local government in England is not helpful when an important issue like this crops up. Residents and businesses should not be expected to follow what is the responsibility of MVDC or SCC and should not expect to have to deal with dozens of different officers from both councils. Also a successful communication strategy requires much more co-ordination than is currently the case
Recommendation C: this should be done by one or both Councils
Sort out the short term parking problems by better use of existing spaces, reducing long stay/commuting spaces and if appropriate introducing shuttle buses and/or Park and Ride services from car parks outside the town centre. Set targets for access and footfall and get more people into Leatherhead as the proportion of those using the car declines
Reason There is a strong perception that short term parking for shoppers is a significant problem. There is a real need to get more people to visit Leatherhead.
Recommendation C: this should be done by one or both Councils
Carry out a thorough review of all recommendations for regenerating the town centre and either implement them on an accelerated time scale or reject them with a reasoned explanation
Reason Good work has been done in the past on policies and measures for the regeneration of the town centre (eg the Civic Trust report in 1996). It is not entirely clear what has been done and what has not been done and this creates a sense of distrust and alarm and a feeling that the fundamental problems of the town centre are not being tackled
Recommendation C: this should be done by one or both Councils
Review all public consultation procedures and produce guidelines on best practice
Reason The history of consultation and information sharing in Leatherhead is not a happy one. Councils have carried out the kind of consultation that any Council would have done. The long gap between consultation and construction work and the sensitivity of High St issues simply point to the need for a new people-centred form of consultation for use on future schemes
Recommendation S: this should be done by the shops, the traders and their representative organisations
All shops, traders and representative groups should discus and agree a strategy for how best to make an impact on residents, visitors and shoppers to encourage them to spend locally. This will involve physical improvements in the premises, opening in the evening, marketing, exploiting local distinctiveness and participation in festivals
Reason Many of the shops are not presenting themselves as well as they might and are not experimenting with ways and means of attracting customers. Just being there is not enough
Recommendation LA: this should be done by Leatherhead Ahead
Leatherhead Ahead is an energetic and dynamic group. It has all the ingredients needed to launch a new campaign designed to persuade residents to spend more money in the High St. This would be in partnership with shops, Councils and businesses but does represent an excellent opportunity to apply real skills to the fundamental problems of Leatherhead
Reason Unless more local residents take on the responsibility of defending their own High St by spending more money in its shops it will be lost. It is not enough to demand that someone else does something. The answer to Leatherhead's problems is very much in the hands of Leatherhead's citizens
Recommendation AG: this should be done by all the representative groups, community groups and action groups
Encourage all members to spend more in the High St. Initiate and support special events. Develop literary events to celebrate Leatherhead's achievements. This includes the Churches
Reason As above.
Be inclusive and remember the special needs and sensitivities of the elderly, children, disabled people and visually impaired

The need to make sure Leatherhead is attractive to everyone and makes the best possible use of the spending power of everyone

The Water Feature
I have given this one aspect of a much bigger set of issues a great deal of thought. My conclusion is that it should proceed as planned. My reasons are:

1 It has been through all the processes and procedures of democratic decision making in local government including public consultation. I have seen no flaw in the decision making process and it would be bad government for a radical change in direction to take place after the signing of contracts and after the work has started.

2 The cancellation of the water feature would incur financial penalties. This report does not include an analysis of how much or who would pay but it is not in the interests of businesses or local residents for substantial sums of public money to be thrown away as cancellation charges. Indeed it would expose the local authorities to charges of mismanagement of public funds

3 The water feature is only a small part of a much bigger problem. If the central objective of all stakeholder and resident groups in Leatherhead is to bring about a retailing renaissance, stop shops closing and breath new life into the town centre then all this can be done at the same time as the water feature goes ahead. The water feature is not an obstacle to Leatherhead's renaissance.

[Leatherhead AHEAD's reply 4 July 2002]