The Neighbourhood Plan Team also discovered that lack of affordable employment space was not just a Southwold problem. 88.7% of the East Suffolk’s economy is based on microbusinesses employing between 1 to 10 people. As noted in the East Suffolk Economic Strategy, ‘There is insufficient existing provision for small businesses and limited move-on space – and developers are reluctant to build speculatively.’ This is because developers expect a return of 20% profit on their investment, and small businesses cannot afford commercial rents. The lack of affordable, flexible business space was acting as a brake on economic opportunities for local people. The disinterest of property developers in providing such space requires public bodies or not-for-profit organisations to step in to fill the gap.
As 2019 approached, a decision on the future of Station Yard became increasingly urgent. Repairs were needed to keep the industrial sheds minimally habitable and their cost outweighed the value of the decaying structures.
In January 2017 Southwold received confirmation from the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) that its bid to become a Coastal Community Team had been accepted. The CCT is a local partnership consisting of the Town Council, District Council and a range of stakeholders representing the community who have an understanding of the issues facing the area and can develop an effective forward strategy for the town.
The CCT successfully applied for a c£1 million grant to complete a funding package in relation to regenerating the area known as Station Yard. The funding included much needed support for the town’s existing businesses – a Town Development Manager to head a team of three as part of a joint and inseverable package to promote employment at the site and throughout the wider town.
The rest of the funding package for the Station Yard redevelopment comes from the leasehold sale of two properties on Strickland Place, whose occupancy is restricted to principal residences. A young family with children is in the process of moving into one of these properties.
The Coastal Communities grant required a robust business plan as part of the application process. Following the pandemic, the Town Council decided to revisit the business plan to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the local economy and the demand for employment. After a tendering process, it retained David Lock Associates (DLA) to conduct an independent business plan review with a fresh set of eyes, taking account of the shift from office-based work in metropolitan areas to remote working in rural areas and other Covid-19 economic impacts.
At a well-attended public Zoom meeting, DLA presented the results of its review and answered related questions. Although Covid-19 has revealed that some degree of remote working is desirable and more efficient, working from home is less than ideal for many people. Instead, the workplace of the future is expected to be a mix of office, home, and regionally dispersed employment centres. The Station Yard hub would draw on demand from businesses throughout East Suffolk that are within an easy commute from Southwold. The local operators and agents who were consulted were strongly of the view that the proposed hub should cater to as wide a variety of business types as possible, and that there was sufficient demand to make Station Yard a financially sustainable investment.
Throughout its history, there has never been public parking for Station Yard. This will now change. The Millennium Foundation, using a field donated by the Town Council, has just obtained planning permission to build a 150 space car park opposite the Stella Peskett Hall. Works are scheduled to begin in late 2021 and should be completed within the year. The new car park will be a great asset to the town, serving the needs of employees, residents and visitors.
The DLA updated Business Case Review may be found on the Town Council website southwoldtown.com along with all other reports and minutes of meetings related to Station Yard.