£535,000 to fix struggling Somerset town centres

More than half a million pounds will be spent trying to help Somerset town centres get back on their feet after the coronavirus.

Somerset West and Taunton Council has launched its new ’emergency town centre recovery fund’, where money from business rates will be invested back in projects designed to bring people back into the district’s town centres.

The council will be focusing its efforts on reviving the fortunes of Taunton, Wellington and Minehead, though smaller towns and rural villages will also be receiving support.

Smaller amounts of funding for individual projects or event will also be made available through the council’s new community chest fund.

Councillor Marcus Kravis, portfolio holder for economic development, confirmed the town centre funding at a virtual full council meeting on Tuesday evening (September 29).

He said in his written report: “The discouragement of face-to-face services in order to curtail the spread of the coronavirus has adversely affected businesses trading within our traditional service centres.

B3187 Fore Street in Wellington town centre
B3187 Fore Street in Wellington town centre
(Image: Google Maps)

“While some businesses have been able to adapt how they interact with their customers, the negative impact on the majority of businesses based in these areas has been significant, and is well-documented in the national media.

“This is also reflected in local town centre footfall statistics, which dropped dramatically during the lockdown period.

“As covid-19 restrictions have eased, public habits and public confidence in visiting services in a traditional face-to-face means has not returned to its previous levels, nor is it expected to do so for some time (if at all).”

Taunton is the largest single beneficiary of the new funding, receiving £200,000 of the £535,000 total.

Wellington and Minehead town centres will receive £100,000 each, with the remaining £135,000 being divided between the smaller settlements of Dulverton, Dunster, Porlock, Watchet, Williton and Wiveliscombe.

Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for planning policy and transport, said: “When we get shocks like this, like the crash in 2008, it’s incumbent on the public sector to hold out a hand and support our businesses.”

The funding for the town centres will come from business rates retained as part of a central government pilot, and will be administered by the town or parish council for each settlement – or, in Taunton’s case, the local chamber of commerce.

Mr Kravis said a recovery plan would be agreed for each town, and acknowledged that different areas would benefit from different kinds of initiatives to bring people back into the town centre.

The Parade in Minehead town centre
The Parade in Minehead town centre
(Image: Google Maps)

He said: “There is a general emphasis on actions which ensure that the town remains welcoming to visitors.

“For example, we should be ensuring that the public realm is well-maintained and well-presented, that there is vibrancy through stimulating outdoor markets and entertainment, and that the centre and its activities and attractions are well-marketed.”

In addition to the town centre funding, the council has set aside £250,000 for a separate community chest fund, which is now accepting applications.

The fund is designed to support one-off events or initiatives by community groups or voluntary sector organisations, who may not be eligible for other sources of funding.

Groups can apply for up to £7,500 towards their activities, with the grant being able to cover up to 75 per cent of the total cost of a given project.

Councillor Chris Booth, portfolio holder for communities, said: “I am delighted that we are able to provide this boost for groups who have been giving their time, resources and commitment despite not being able to receive a grant or other funding.

“We know there are many people working hard in our communities to enable activities and projects to take place and operate safely.

“It is our aim to support them as they selflessly enhance people’s lives and help our communities recover from the effects of covid-19.”

For more details about the community chest, including how to apply, visit www.somersetwestandtaunton.gov.uk/communitychest .

Somerset Live Bath