Orpington’s businesses have indicated strong support for the general proposal to regenerate The Walnuts, notwithstanding concerns surrounding disruption during construction.
Orpington is a great place to live, work and visit. A town with a great history that deserves a great future.
Our business community, the community which makes it a major town centre, has shown that it’s flexible, inclusive, and socially responsible - notably seed funding the town’s Covid Mutual Aid Group through Orpington 1st, with many businesses showing tremendous support individually.
We understand the importance of the business and resident communities working together. Orpington businesses demonstrated their commitment to the town in establishing the first Business Improvement District (BID) in the borough back in 2013. The BID continues to invest in the delivery of a wide range of projects aiming to improve the physical, social, and economic wellbeing of the town. But doing so with outdated premises and infrastructure is increasingly challenging.
Orpington high street has a thriving hospitality sector, excellent professional services and gyms, a strong personal care sector, retailers delivering first class customer service, and the offices of some truly innovative and forward-thinking businesses. Our vacancy rate sits at around 9%, comparing favourably with the Greater London Average of 11% and the GB average of 14%.
It is not home to all of our favourite brands; the combination of a lack of suitable and modern premises and an acceleration in online shopping mean that this is the case in high streets across the country. More than 17,000 chain store outlets closed across Britain last year, an average of 47 stores shutting every day, with fashion stores seeing the most closures. It is widely acknowledged that we have an oversupply of retail floorspace, and some reimagining is required.
Orpington is a major town centre in the London Borough of Bromley, and we should celebrate being part of one of the greatest cities in the world, with one eye South to the Garden of England: the London/Kent Gateway. London is diverse – demographically, geographically, economically. As part of it we can carve our own, unique identity, build on our strengths, focusing on visitor experience, and encouraging independents and entrepreneurs. Capitalising on our enviable location we can protect our green belt, building quality new homes in the heart of the town centre to sustain vitality, whilst retaining low rise suburbia in the areas which surround it.
Businesses have had to be resilient and adaptable in responding to changes in customer behaviour, changes which have resulted in many people deciding to shop online but still expecting a variety of options locally. The current Walnuts Shopping Centre has long been a challenge to attracting a wider range of tenants and a broader demographic of residents. It is no longer fit for purpose with much of its footprint redundant as unusable back of house.
Businesses deserve better. A better environment in which to work, a better quality of affordable and flexible premises, better connectivity with the wider town centre.
We understand the need for significant inward investment at the heart of the town, and the opportunity that it would provide.
Bromley’s Regeneration Strategy, which the Council adopted in 2020, sets out Orpington as a priority area,
“enabling the development of the Walnuts site and ensuring inclusion of high-quality community facilities"
‘The large leisure centre complex, and the potential for the new owner of the shopping centre to develop the site, creates significant regeneration opportunities. There is strong potential to bring forward housing to support the development of new state of the art leisure provision and improve the public realm.”
And as clearly described,
"a cohesive plan for the redevelopment of the Walnut’s site will act as a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider town centre and stimulate the wider local economy”
These statements are welcomed, and the opportunity of significant investment is timely.
Any additional services required by an increase in population will need to be assessed by those bodies responsible for delivery. The developer is required to make a significant contribution through the Community Infrastructure Levy and the ringfencing of this funding for Orpington should be a focus for discussion with our elected representatives.
The Walnuts car park, which is never at capacity, will remain open throughout building works. Where practical, a step towards more active and sustainable travel is a positive one, and the scheme makes provision for that whilst also including some resident car parking. Continued lobbying for appropriate investment in public transport remains a priority.
The commitment to continuity of service for the Saxon Day Centre with a new, purpose-built facility, is welcome. The Walnuts Leisure Centre is an important public service but at fifty years old it is increasingly difficult and costly to maintain, and it will be required to close for major works at some point in the near future. A full rebuild would extend the period of closure but provide an efficient, high-quality centre, fully integrated into the town.
Living in a town centre is an appealing prospect to an increasing number of people. Attracting a broader demographic of residents to live within the town centre, all contributing to our local economy and patronising local businesses, is essential.
The Council’s decision-making time frame has recently been extended, with Areli’s agreement, to July 31st, allowing for more detailed consideration. This development is important to all communities and robust and meaningful dialogue must be conducted with respect for differing opinions, and an understanding of the commercial realities.
As towns and cities across the UK look to reposition, repurpose, and rebuild to ensure viability, we have the opportunity to create a more vibrant, relevant, and modern town centre. To be creative and forward thinking and to build not just for ourselves but for the next generation, and the next.