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The big issues... Monnow Street

Following the consultation workshop on Monnow Street, concerns have been expressed by Monmouth Chamber of Commerce. Here Sherren McCabe-Finlayson, chair of Monmouth Chamber of Commerce sums up, having felt some salient points need to be addressed, are being missed or ignored.

Naturally, the Chamber’s biggest responsibility is for the future of the businesses who operate within Monmouth.

Monmouth Chamber of Commerce has been representing local businesses for 100 years; our membership is over 80 strong and growing, from sole traders to the town’s largest employer.

This includes retailers, professional services, estate agents, property developers, hospitality, serviced offices, tradespeople, health professionals and schools.

We also actively engage with and promote non-member businesses in the town. We are the largest organisation representing the commercial interests of Monmouth. We feel it is important that everyone understands the views of the Chamber.

It appeared that there were significant absences in sectors that should have been represented at the consultation meeting. Wholesale changes to the centre of town should not be contemplated without talking to the emergency services, doctors ‘surgeries, public transport operators, local postal management and ‘posties’, undertakers, schools, taxi drivers, disabled groups, carnival committee, representatives of the industrial units in Wonastow Road, Singleton Court and Apex House, and groups like the WI whose members may well be retired and have concerns that deserve to be considered.

We have experienced two large fires in Monmouth since the ‘temporary’ road regime trials were first introduced, but seemingly nobody has bothered to ask the local Fire Brigade whether the changes in Monnow Street hampered their response times, or the local Police as to whether there are better ways of managing traffic through or around the town.

The other thing that was completely airbrushed in the presentation is the fact Monmouth only has one road in and out, and that the only other access and egress is via a 50mph dual carriageway. If there is a problem on that road and traffic needs to be rerouted through the main street, it affects the WHOLE town. This has been proved time and again and is even more problematic since the pinch point was further narrowed. For argument’s sake, if Monnow Street and the dual carriageway are both at a standstill and there is a fire at one of the schools, how does the Fire Brigade get through or, in some cases, how do the firefighters get to the station from their home or workplace?

Cafe culture is a wonderful term but in the case of Monmouth it’s completely erroneous. We have had an adequacy of cafes in Monmouth for years in pedestrianised parts of town. Beaufort Arms Court, Church Street, and White Swan Court are quiet, fume-free areas where one can enjoy a coffee, snack, or meal al fresco. Yet these areas have been ignored in the great plan and since the Covid-inspired parklets were sited near chain coffee shops and eateries, other independents have seen their footfall reduced. The Chamber of Commerce is very aware of the difficulties facing businesses to the north of the pinch-point: attempting to turn Monnow Street into a pastiche of a European city street can only exacerbate their hardship.

Why do we need trees and greening in Monnow Street?

We are not a concrete jungle; we are surrounded by beautiful countryside and grassy areas a short walk from the town centre, such as the riverside adjacent to Monnow Bridge; Chippenham, where families and workers can take their picnics and lunches; and Vauxhall Fields that are popular with hikers and dog walkers.

Let’s concentrate on improving signage and get more of a flow of movement throughout the town to utilise all the existing amenities.

Highlighting schemes implemented in Vancouver or Camberwell, to justify winning pots of funding, are completely inappropriate for our town. Monmouth is unique in so many ways and if planners must look for similar projects to emulate, they should identify small market towns with only one road through and a dual carriageway alongside.

A town that has three senior schools, all of whose children, parents and bus drivers access the town at least twice a day. A town that naturally attracts walkers and cyclists. A town that relies on its outlying villages within a 10-mile radius for its regular trade. A town that might be visited more frequently if there was regular, convenient public transport, or enough parking so that when you do visit you don’t stress driving around looking for a space.

Monnow Street should definitely not be considered in isolation; any changes affect all businesses and especially anyone operating in Agincourt Square, Priory Street, White Swan Court, Church Street and Beaufort Arms Court. In the collective opinion of our members, any study of Monnow Street should anticipate and correlate with the imminent Placemaking Plan so that the town is looked at holistically, not just as one street that everything else is subject to several months later.

What if the results of the Placemaking Plan are diametrically opposed to what is agreed earlier for our main street?

The retail area of the town is the heart holding everything else together and the shopkeepers are the veins that make the heart work and keep our area vibrant. This seems to be overlooked time and time again.

What was interesting about the images presented, of Monnow Street through the ages, was how well the original wide street worked for all kinds of different decades.

The things that have stopped the street working and being the vibrant and eclectic town it once was, are all the changes over the past 15 years implemented by the Council in the name of progress.

Most of these changes were imposed, not made in response to demand.

Take it back to its bare bones, and encourage shared space that allows plenty of room for everyone.

Put selective, considered street parking and delivery bays back and have regular crossing areas to assist people of all ages and capabilities.

Empathise with the views of the many, rather than those of relatively small lobbies with singular agenda.

History is one of Monmouth’s USPs and has a far greater commercial potential than working to a sterile blueprint that echoes a myriad of other schemes up and down the country. Yet our historic main street has been allowed to be changed so radically it no longer reflects its provenance, is not fit for purpose, and obstructs traffic flow.

Obviously, businesses of all sizes have been hit by Brexit, the Ukraine War and now the cost-of living crisis.

Monmouth has been hit harder than many because of the various changes that have been trialled over the past two years. Recent reports from traders indicate that footfall is down 35-40 per cent on pre-Covid levels.

But what appears to be neglected at every stage is that the self-employed business owner is hit harder than anyone.

For someone to open a business takes a lot of courage; they are putting everything on the line to pursue their ambition.

They are investing hard earned savings into trying to realise their aspirations, reliant on other people wanting their product or service: and if they don’t get any custom during a day not only can they not cover their overheads - they can’t pay themselves, and so can’t meet their domestic expenses either.

It’s a double-whammy. If you take a day off sick, you don’t get paid. If you take a holiday, you aren’t earning, so you don’t get paid. Time off for a doctor’s appointment, a family funeral, or to wait in for a boiler service, you aren’t getting paid. There’s no sick pay or benefits and yet the self-employed invariably pay their taxes without quibble.

Although the plan is predicated on proposals for improving the environment, increasing footfall and subsequently business wealth, it is only theoretical.

Planning consultants enthusiastically point to evidence of city schemes across the globe that have benefitted from similar developments, but that is to compare pigs with hippos. Those animals might be related but everything about their lifestyle is completely different and Monmouth, in particular, has unique characteristics.

Those of us who run our businesses and work here know full well there are problems with the town, but our voices and those of the list given earlier don’t seem to count.

If this scheme doesn’t attract more footfall, new visitors, and locals back to the shops, what we will see is more and more empty buildings resulting from an expensive white elephant.

Currently, there are 29 empty shops and others on the brink of closure.

That situation isn’t just due to the demise of independents: the large chains are also dependent on regular levels of customer, or their masters lose faith in an area and move on.

This was the case with Holland and Barrett and Boots the Opticians, both of which found that deliveries were being impaired and less able customers could not access them because the car parks are too far away.

Had the business community been approached for comment last Autumn, in the early stages of the Monnow Street consultation, we would not need to be making these observations at such a late stage of the process. Whatever conclusions are reached, we beg the planners to think about our concerns before anything is implemented.

This scheme needs to be done right, otherwise our town will cease to be the unique place it is, and that puts the future of a lot of people at stake.

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