Coventry & Warwickshire

Leamington and Alcester Portas' Pilot bids - six months on

Jeremy Ireland and Leamington Old Town
Image caption Jeremy Ireland is in charge of the team looking to rejuvenate Leamington old town

Last summer Leamington old town and Alcester enjoyed contrasting fates when they bid for a £100,000 share of a government scheme, spearheaded by retail expert Mary Portas, to rejuvenate England's high streets.

Out of more than 400 applications, the Leamington bid was one of the successful 15.

Alcester's was not, but those behind the market town's bid remained determined their ideas could still work without the investment.

So, little more than six months on, how are the two Warwickshire teams getting on?

After strolling around old town, it appears about one fifth of the shop units still remain vacant. It is still not the prettiest of urban scenes and is still regarded as a no-go area by some who live and work in other parts of Leamington.

'Over-optimism'

But while taking a tour with Jeremy Ireland, project leader for the old town bid, a handful of new shops, freshly painted buildings and the site of a winter festival are pointed out to me.

Image caption The team behind Alcester's failed bid did eventually manage to land £10,000 of funding

"We've achieved a great deal in the background so we've made an awful lot of policies and activities easier than they were to deal with," said Mr Ireland when explaining what has happened in the intervening months.

The plan is still to entice more people by offering "browsing type shops" and attractions not already found in the area but it has been a slower process than the bid team expected.

Mr Ireland said: "I think it was over-optimism.

"Some landlords have got behind us and we expect big changes to happen over the next six months."

It is clear not all of the £100,000 has been spent.

In fact none of the government money has yet been touched - but it has been earmarked to help business start-ups and to get a piece of prominent artwork commissioned.

A further £40,000 from local businesses and councils has been spent on events including the winter festival which attracted more than 1,000 visitors, according to Mr Ireland.

By the end of the summer he expects to have created corridors of "artistic browsing type businesses running through the old town" and to have established a regular specialist market.

The project leader said the high profile of the scheme had not been a hindrance.

"It's provided a massive amount of impetus and profile which we wouldn't ordinarily have had," he concluded.

'Get people back'

Roughly 20 miles away in Alcester is Sam Rath, chair of the town's chamber of trade and commerce, who has been trying to get three projects off the ground without the aid of such impetus or profile.

But Mr Rath and his team did manage to land a one-off grant of £10,000 which came from a subsequent share of money linked to the Portas' Pilots scheme.

Image caption Sam Rath and Amanda Lake hope to get tourists returning on a regular basis

Mr Rath said: "We allocated the money proportionately to the schemes that we outlined to the government in the first place."

The town has a reputation for throwing a party and has been spoilt over the past two years with the addition of a royal wedding, jubilee and Olympics to the calendar. They were events that drew crowds of about 15,000.

But in their absence a beer festival and extension of Alcester's food festival is planned this year.

Mr Rath's main concern is that many visitors to such events tend not to return and he plans to get local businesses to support them "to make sure we get people back to the town".

The chamber chair is hopeful two other projects, an apprentice scheme and mobile cinema, are close to fruition.

Local businesswoman Amanda Lake has already been working with the mayor visiting schools to gain interest in the apprentice project.

As for the cinema, at least a couple of locations have been identified and Mr Rath said the process of sourcing the equipment and signing up for the films is under way.

In Mary Portas's report the retail guru said "I want to breathe economic and community life back into our high streets". Mr Ireland and Mr Rath will both hope they are doing so, with or without the £100,000 boost.

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