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Hungerford is the South's Best Kept Secret

on 30 January 2015.

Townsite in conversation with Richard Benyon MP

During a busy day out and about in the constituency, West Berks MP Richard Benyon came to Hungerford to host one of his supermarket surgeries outside Tesco, a political ‘pop-up shop’ where locals can address their queries and concerns to our man in Westminster.

Before meeting the crowds, Richard took half an hour out to meet with Townsite at Libby Blakey Interiors for a brief interview where we put questions about the future of Hungerford to him. He was very upbeat about its prospects. ‘Compared to many towns, Hungerford High Street is in good shape. It is better now than it has been for years andfantastic townseeing Bridge Street lift like it has is really good.’ Libby Blakey’s stylish new interior design store is a case in point, a prime example of new businesses wanting to set up in the town.

Townsite raised the issue of the economic problems of recent years and more specifically Mary Portas’ report about the state of the British high street.

‘You can have as many government initiatives and clever reports like Mary Portas’ on the British High Street as you like, but if you don’t have a

“Hungerford has been amazingly clever at giving people what they want ”

successful economy at both a local and national level people aren’t going to be able to afford to come and use a place like this. In lean times people tend to shop in supermarkets and not use independent shops. Hungerford has been amazingly clever at giving people what they want and encouraging small independent shops to thrive It’s attention to detail that matters and it’s important that the businesses that come are very professional with a proper business plan and approach to getting customers in.’

Did he think officialdom had a role to play in promoting prosperity at a local level?‘The job of local government and particularly the town council is to make people want to come to Hungerford to spend their leisure pound as well as their commercial pound and making the whole visitor experience positive. The (railway) station needs to be much more of a gateway to the town and I know town councillors are really on this. It has been a long time coming but we have been having conversations with Network Rail and Great Western to make sure that Hungerford is a place that visitors and commuters want to come to. What we are going to see in the years ahead is a re-developed area which is going to be much more welcoming.’

We asked him if he thought the internet had a use in drawing people to the town? ‘We’re all online now and sites like Townsite are really important. People all across the South, wondering what to do on a Saturday morning want a good

"Sites like Townsite are really important. People all across the South, wondering what to do on a Saturday morning, want a good online reference point to a community like this. "

online reference point to a community like this.’ We put it to Richard Benyon that although use of the internet may be good for promoting the town, the trend was definitely for people to buy on-line and this was having an effect on localfantastic town

With Libbey Blakey from Libby Blakey Designs

business. Nevertheless he was optimistic about the public still using their high streets to shop. ‘Even though people are buying online they still want to come and look at a product, talk to somebody behind the counter and have a nice meal. I travel around a lot and what I see going on around here is really good.’

Townsite asked the MP if there were any strategic initiatives in place to get people to the town. ‘The town is well served by good main arteries, the M4 going east to west and the A34 north to south, carrying a population with a huge amount of spending power, but too often they drive straight past a place like Hungerford and we need to get them to stop. There are simple things you can do like putting up the brown signs. I was getting irritated by the bureaucratic difficulty of getting the brown signs pointing off the motorway, it all seemed unnecessarily complicated, but finally it is happening.’

Was funding an issue? ‘Government can do a certain amount but even so, funding is never going to be enough and I believe it requires businesses working with local government to bring people in. Of course an online presence is

important, but really it’s the offer that draws in the tourist. Hungerford is the South of England’s best kept secret. People come up to me, people who have lived in the area for a long time but have never been to the town and say in an awed tone, ‘Hungerford is fantastic, you can get so much here.’

Richard Benyon’s constituency is in better economic shape than most with local unemployment at only 0.8%, almost the lowest figure nationally. The MP believes that tapping in to this flourishing community is key to Hungerford’s continuing prosperity. ‘I’ve just come from opening the Audley Inglewood retirement home about three miles from here, where there is an affluent community of about 300 people. I want those people to come and use Hungerford and their children and grandchildren too.’

The wealth may be there but this does not always translate into spending. Did he feel that optimism was returning after the economic downturn? ‘We’ve got lots of new businesses starting up or wanting to start up and I think West Berks is one of the best places to start or grow a business. There is a pro business view in the local authority by and

“Crime levels have dropped to the lowest since records began and it all adds to the reasons why people want to live and work here”

large which is really helpful. There are also businesses that are expanding and look to Reading or Swindon to re-locate but it is often the workforce that wants to stay local. Hungerford has difficulties in that respect, we have some industrial space but not enough. In some ways it’s a nice problem to have, a sign that things are good.’ But it is not just economic vibrancy that makes Hungerford such a great place to live: ‘Crime levels have dropped to the lowest since records began and it all adds to the reasons why people want to live and work here.’

Hungerford’s popularity as a place to live brings problems of its own. With a shortage of housing nationally, development is a hot topic at all levels of government, one of the biggest issues we face locally. We asked Richard about the difficulty of balancing the need to provide affordable housing against unpopular development schemes. ‘You can ruin a town like Hungerford with the wrong type of development, but there are many families who are

fantastic town

With Cllr Paul Hewer

desperate for their children to stay in the community. When I was first elected ten years ago there were 1500 on the social housing register, there are now around 5000 so there is definitely a need for more affordable homes. The Help to Buy scheme which offers a 25% discount is a very important way for young families get on the housing ladder. The local authority accepts that there will need to be more housing but it just needs to be in the right place. There are one or two brown-field sites that can be developed in the future.’ The town’s geography also helps: ‘Hungerford’s blessing is that it has a marsh one side and a common on the other and this has protected it from the kind of sprawling development that has happened in similar towns in the south of England. But the pressure is going to continue and politicians at all levels need to lead the argument.’

Benyon feels strongly that sometimes it is the role of an MP to make unpopular decisions and take the flak that comes with those decisions. ‘Some politicians like to say this is never going to happen, this town will never change, but you are disadvantaging young families. There needs to be a diversity of people living here, not just an affluent retirement population because that is how communities fossilise and die. It’s a constant challenge and all I can do is keep talking to local people. It’s one of the most important issues nationally and it’s for the local councillors to make tough decisions. Sometimes we have to disagree with many of our strongest supporters.’

MPs are frequently accused of being out of touch with their constituents and Benyon believes it is crucial that he make himself available to people so they can communicate with him directly. ‘The supermarket surgeries are pretty full on but really successful, a great place to meet locals. I deal with people with very serious problems, health, housing, immigration and neighbourhood concerns. I can’t always solve their issues but I can raise them and get some answers. There are two main reasons to see your MP: one is when you have a serious problem and you want your MP to solve it and another is when you want to get something off your chest. I think both are entirely legitimate. Whether its tax credits, Europe or farming, it’s what I’m here for.’ And with that he made his way his Tesco to face his public. Down to earth and direct, Richard Benyon is not a politician who shies away from the voters. Hungerford could do a lot worse.

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