Business, friend or foe? Working together.

Councillor Jean Boulton

Frome is a small market town in the very north east of the county of Somerset and has a population of 27,000. Its traditional industry has largely disappeared and 70% of its businesses are independent and most of these are small (less than 10 employees). Frome Town Council is active in both supporting busi-nesses directly and in regeneration – engaging in ambitious projects to en-hance the town centre, and supporting the provision of venues, facilities, open spaces and balanced planning.

The Town Council wants to play a role in supporting Frome businesses to en-sure the town does not either become moribund (with many empty shops and few facilities) or turn into a remote ‘suburb’ for Bath or Bristol. A vibrant town attracts visitors and is able to provide leisure and retail facilities, services and job opportunities for local people. There is a need for premises, so that local people and others attracted to the area can establish new businesses, and so there is room for businesses to grow. There is a need for other infrastructure – transport, parking, road and rail links and good broadband. Small businesses, to sustain and grow, can benefit from networking, enhancing skills and sharing resources.

We find ways to help the community, as well as sharing the impetus to lead the way in terms of ‘green’ policies and practices. We have developed a ‘man-tra’ in our work with businesses, which is to ask – ‘what do businesses need, what can they share (with each other), and what can they give (to the town and the wider environment). Some of the initiatives we have initiated and/or supported are listed below.

Business breakfasts

In 2015, together with the Chamber of Commerce and some local business enthusiasts, we re-invigorated a monthly ‘business breakfast’. These business breakfasts regularly attract at least 30 people. The primary purpose is to pro-vide easy and time-effective ways for local business people to keep up with a range of topics – including changes in the law, use of social media for market-ing, IT security, strategic planning, and communication skills. We are also able to engage people with some of our initiatives.

‘Discuss and Do’

Discuss and Do meetings had been run by the local Chamber of Commerce and we decided together to re-instate these, in 2016, as an adjunct to the breakfast meetings. Some funding is provided by the District Council too. People meet early evening and drinks are available but not food. The topics are not disimilar to the breakfast meetings, but there is a greater emphasis on discussion and often there will be a number of contributors making inputs to kickstart sharing of ideas and information. Sometimes there are 50 attendees at these meetings, particularly those focusing on use of social media.

Soul Traders

This is something we have been trialling over the last year. A number of sole traders commented as to how hard it can be to be motivated and also not suffer some of the time from a sense of isolation or lack of confidence. These monthly meetings occur late afternoon with a fairly small group of people – there are exercises to deepen sharing and exploration of sensitive issues as well as sharing skills and sharing ways of enhancing creativity.

Occasional conferences

We are planning to run a half-day conference showcasing women in business and there are discussions about holding a ‘Frome Expo’ in 2019.

‘Good business’ audits

We have been rolling out a free service to provide feedback and offer sugges-tions to small businesses. These follow a framework which mirrors our own town council strategy. We explore issues around the core business strategy and about HR and continuous improvement processes. We then discuss the business’s approach to environmental sustainability – energy efficiency, recy-cling and waste reduction, ethical sourcing and transport. Finally we inquire as to ways the business can or does engage with the local community, with other local businesses and considers its ethical stance in the wider world. We provide a short confidential report for each business. It has helped us discover some of the ways in which businesses already contribute to the local commu-nity and help us provide ideas and create links with local schools and commu-nity organisations.

We are exploring shared ways of procurement and shared ways of recycling (for example plastics and food waste). We have also been able to give advice as to how to become a ‘greener’ business and showcase best practice.

Creative ways of researching what is needed that offer experience for students

One really effective initiative is to take on students looking for work place-ments and work with them to ‘map’ the town’s businesses and gather survey data. The students were able to learn about the nature of the commercial world, and to practice interview techniques. Last year we worked with 12 students for a whole week during which they visited all the businesses in the town centre, input all the data into a giant spreadsheet and then used the date to design and deliver presentations. It was fascinating, for example, to discov – er that a third of town centre business have been trading for over 20 years, a third for 5-20 years and only a third are ‘new’. This gives a picture of a thriving and stable economy.

Supporting the visitor economy

We are aware that Frome’s economy is to a large extent dependent on visitors and so the Town Council can play a part in putting Frome on the map, in providing information, in battling for improved transport infrastructure and a well-thought-through parking strategy. We have reinstated a town centre in – formation point run by volunteers and this provides a source of information on what’s on, on local amenities and shops and cafes. It is linked to and branded as ‘Discover Frome’ , a presence on the FTC website and social media: This designed to provide information on events, facilities, and news relating to local businesses and enterprises.

Equally, we give ongoing financial support to other initiatives which attract visi-tors such as Frome Festival and the monthly Frome Independent Market. Both these initiatives help to put Frome on the map and create a sense of a town where it is great to visit and great to live.

We also stage events styled to attract visitors. For example, we recently staged a busking competition for under 25s in the town centre. This was designed in part to give support to young and promising musicians but also to enliven a cold March Saturday in the Town Centre.

Economic regeneration

One of the issues for a town like Frome is to try and safeguard commercial space as well as respond to the need for affordable homes. Our neighbour-hood plan tries to ensure homes and commercial space are balanced and we are in constant discussion with the District Council to promote this balance in the face of government policy which favours housing in most circumstances and is not designed with the small town (with its micro-businesses) in mind.

A key focus for our regeneration activity is the town centre where the empha-sis is on creating a more pedestrian friendly environment and better spaces for events on which the town has built its reputation. The Town Council has also coordinated the effort to revitalise old industrial areas on the edge of the town centre. In getting involved in regeneration, we recognise that we have stepped into a space that is traditionally the preserve of bigger councils.

Cheese & Grain

One example of a catalyst project is the Council’s investment in the Cheese & Grain, a music and community venue in the Market Yard. For many years the venue run by Frome Cheese & Grain Limited, a social enterprise, had been dependent on an annual grant of £35k from the Town Council from which it leases the building. The venue lacked the capacity to develop its facilities and bring them up to modern standards. However, in 2013, a £530k investment by the Council funded using a Public Works Loan Board loan provided a new lease of life.

The Cheese & Grain now has a new café and bar open seven days a week, new toilet facilities and a new reception and box office suitable to sustain a venue for 850 people (500 if seated). There are three new meeting and train-ing rooms and six supported “hot desks” for local small businesses and free-lance workers. Events and footfall have expanded greatly and crucially the venue is no longer dependent on an annual grant from the Council. The ‘icing on the cake’ was probably the Foo Fighters concert last year which helped to put the Cheese & Grain on the international map!

The commitment by the Council has encouraged the Lottery through Power to Change to get involved in supporting the latest Cheese & Grain initiative, the Bert Jansch Media Centre. This centre housed within the tower to the rear of the venue, is designed to support young people to improve their skills in the music sector as well as provide recording facilities for the community and mu-sic industry alike. The Council has provided £130k in grant funding to match the investment by Power to Change. Whilst this required further Loan Board funding the repayments are financed largely through the generation of reve-nue through the solar panels installed by the Council some years ago. The centre will be completed in May 2018.

The Market Place

The range of problems around the Market Place has provoked debate for many years. Whilst it has traditionally been the focus of markets and events and is surrounded by some very attractive listed buildings, it has not been a particularly welcoming place. The area is dominated by traffic with around 10,000 vehicle movements per day. Whilst access to the shopping streets is important, the road has been perceived as a barrier to pedestrian movement and with rising congestion, pollution has become a problem. In addition, with the exception of traditional market days and the first Sunday in every month when the road is closed to enable The Frome Independent street market to be held, the opportunity to use the space for events has been limited.

All that is changing now, with the completion in March 2018 of the first phase of the Market Place remodelling scheme. A partnership between the Town Council and Mendip District Council has enabled a new high-quality markets and events area to be created around the Boyle Cross monument. New paving, seating and a reinstated fountain have replaced a rather unattractive parking area. The aim has been to create a revitalised focal point for the local community to gather and enjoy the historic Market Place and ultimately gener-ate additional footfall and trade on the back of the events that it hosts.

The next phase will begin to address the difficulty that people experience in crossing the busy road. The newly refurbished Boyle Cross area is designed as a launching point for people to cross using enhanced courtesy crossings. New paving is also planned as well as a re-adjustment to the existing bus stops to get buses off the road and so reduce congestion. A 20- mph zone will reduce the speed of traffic approaching the Market Place and other measures such as gateways and surface treatments are designed to alert drivers that they are entering an area where pedestrians have greater priority. The plan is for the second phase to be completed by the end of 2018.

Saxonvale

Saxonvale is a site on the eastern edge of the town centre. It is a patchwork quilt of land ownerships largely occupied by derelict industrial buildings al-though there are some attractive listed ones on the edge including the Silk Mill Studios which incubates creative businesses and provides a venue for cultural events. Whilst many ideas have come forward for Saxonvale, none has come to fruition.

The Town Council stepped in a few years ago to try to make things happen. It bought some land to provide the community with a seat at the regeneration table. The Council has since been working to encourage other landowners to bring their land to the market and two of the biggest private landowners on the site have now agreed to dispose of their land. This represents a significant watershed and working with its partners at Mendip District Council and Som-erset County Council, the Town Council will continue to play its part in bringing forward a mixed-use redevelopment of this very important town centre site.

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