The town with two hearts – one of which is slowly breaking

jpco 9-7-14 Queens Square, Crawley (Pic by Jon Rigby) SUS-140807-121049001
jpco 9-7-14 Queens Square, Crawley (Pic by Jon Rigby) SUS-140807-121049001

With yet another major business moving out of Queens Square, the once vibrant hub of the town centre has taken on a despondent air.

Large units on all sides of the square stand empty – a feeling of deterioration which carries on round the corner into the Broadway where not a speck of work appears to have been done on the five-storey housing and retail development which was given planning permission 19 months ago

County Mall, on the other hand, continues to wear the mantle of ‘heart of the town centre’ with pride as it welcomes The Body Shop into its retail family, hot on the heels of Primark and Next.

To have two such contrasting economic centres within a few short yards of each other highlights the frustration of those whose job it is to ensure the whole of the town centre attracts the retail pound.

That frustration is echoed by the residents who have watched Queens Square deteriorate over the past decade to little more than a ghost of its previous self.

But what can be done to address the decline?

Of course, the borough and county councils have pumped £3million into a much-needed facelift for the aging square – but when the work is complete, will we be left with a pretty view surrounded by far too many empty shops?

What’s to stop the grand promises about attracting new retailers to the area turning into so much pie in the sky – a slice of which the town has already been forced to stomach thanks to the Town Centre North let-down?

The task faced by the powers that be is mountainous – and not helped by the fact the council owns none of the land in the centre of town.

Cllr Peter Lamb (Lab, Northgate), leader of the borough council, said: “As a result we don’t have any direct control over the land, rents or occupants of shops in the town centre beyond some limited planning controls.

“The ownership of these buildings is very fragmented and often has more to do with companies off-setting risk rather than a genuine attempt to generate an income through sustainable lettings.

“Consequently, there’s little motivation for these companies to invest in their buildings and it can even be in their interest to leave a property vacant rather than reducing their rents, as lowering rents they would reduce the value of their asset and that matters more to them than rental income.”

With the freehold for the shops in the square belonging to companies as far afield as Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s little wonder the owners don’t place Crawley’s plight high on their list of priorities.

That lack of care coupled with Local Authorities having no power – outside of environmental health risks – to insist landlords keep their premises up to scratch are among the reasons Queen Square’s pulse has been flickering.

Cllr Lamb called on the Government to assist by giving councils the power to motivate building owners to maintain their property.

As well as making the town centre look better, Cllr Lamb felt it would attract a wider variety of tenants to an area which has become a magnet for coffee shops and bookmakers.

He said: “There are several ways we can try to address this, the first is by talking directly with the owners and making it clear to them quite what the consequences for their asset will be if they continue to let their properties to deteriorate.”

Describing the retail problems as “significant”, he added: “We’re working hard to try and address them.

“But until the Government wakes up to what’s going on we’re having to do it with our arms tied behind our back.”