Aiming to put heart back in civic centre
EXCITING new plans are pressing ahead to improve Castle Circus and create a new-style Town Hall square.
It is hoped to put the heart back into the civic centre area and 'reclaim' it from decades of anti-social behaviour by eventually extending the square and making it a centre for street vendors, farmers markets and outdoor cafes.
It follows a summer-long anti-social behaviour dispersal order which gave police special powers to slap a 24-hour ban on trouble makers or drug dealers from a large area around the Town Hall.
In March, Torbay Council removed the benches from outside the town hall where drug users gathered.
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And moves have been taken to remove BT phone boxes from outside the Town Hall which are known to be used for drug deals.
The dispersal orders, which end in September, were a temporary respite from years of problems associated with anti-social behaviour congregating outside the Town Hall.
The first stage of the proposals for change are 'soft changes' to create seating around flower beds, remove the phone boxes and allow street vendors and open-air cafes on the Town Hall paved square.
But eventually bigger plans include possibly closing off the road outside the Connections Office and extending the square around the corner out as far as the current roundabout.
Discussions have also included possibly re-routing traffic and changing the direction of cars so that they travel into town through Torre.
The plans also include big improvements to Upton Park, to make it a town park.
Cllr Darren Cowell called and chaired the meeting which came up with proposals to change Castle Circus.
It was attended by council officers, the church, police, councillors, traders and members of the community.
He said: "The great thing was that everybody was singing with one voice.
"The current proposals to press ahead with the light touch improvements are going ahead — moving the telephone boxes, perhaps putting seating on the flower beds, starting some kind of street vendor or cafe — those few things will be enough to begin to change the atmosphere.
"The Town Centres company and the BID are pressing ahead and it's going along nicely.
"Hopefully, we will also be able to improve Upton Park. There are discussions about significantly updating that as a town centre park.
"I am working with the Friends of Upton Park group. I have already managed to secure £8,500 for just basic maintenance. We will be going out to consultation with the immediate community.
"Another idea in the longer term is to extend the Town Hall Square around the corner to the side by Connections, which is the sunny corner, by possibly re-routing the road around the roundabout.
"It would really open it up. We already have a significant bit of paving in front of the Town Hall.
"Any discussion about closing that bit of road would be taken in conjunction with an overall review of the traffic system in Torquay.
"Torquay must be the only town where when you are driving in from Torre the next signs visitors see are for Teignmouth. Then people are sent on this massive detour around the back of Upton Park and Lymington Road. They need signs that tell them how to get to the beach and the shops.
"It's also linked to the debate about buses in Fleet Walk.
"The Torquay Neighbourhood Forum has set up a Task and Finish group called Reviewing Moving People Around — whether its by taxi, buses or rickshaw. That will include parking as well.
"It's all part of the Neighbourhood Planning Process.
"That discussion has to be had and now is the time to have it while we are discussing a strategy for the next 10 or 15 years.
"I know there is a lot of fear about change because that involves cost, but when you look at the economic situation in Torquay it would suggest we know we have a problem and we need to look in every corner about how to sort it.
"The whole thing is all dependent on how to fund it. Robert Excell, a Torbay councillor, has already won £2.75million for the sustainable transport project, which is good news and he understandably doesn't want to do anything that affects that.
"It is tied up with the plans to develop the car park behind the Town Hall.
"We are talking with a potential developer and working up proposals which hopefully we might have by the end of the summer.
"My hope is that as part of that there may be a section 106 agreement which could fund some of the improvements to the Town Hall square.
"There are problems at Castle Circus but moving the Jobcentre or the Leonard Stocks centre for the homeless isn't going to help.
"We should not be trying to ship these people somewhere else so that they are out of sight and out of mind.
"These people are victims. They don't set out to have problems and addictions or to be made homeless. We need to help these people.
"There is a lot of good work being done by the Leonard Stocks centre, which I support."
One of the proposals of that meeting was: "The churches be engaged with the agencies already working with the relatively few individuals who are causing a nuisance in the area to support them to change their behaviour."
The report said: "The police have made it clear that they would not support a renewal of the dispersal order as it is resource intensive and does not provide a long term solution.
"Councillors, officers, members of the BID and business community, community partnerships and the local church have come together to think about alternative ways of utilising the space immediately outside and adjacent to the Town Hall, Castle Circus, to imagine what may be possible as an interim step to help to design out crime.
"This has taken the form of 'reclaiming' the area, to discourage and disperse the previous undesirable activities from returning, and to use the space differently.
"To date this includes work such as: grassing over the flower beds to create alternative uses for the raised beds, providing benches on-top of the flower beds and in different locations across Castles Circus, introducing some street vendors or a coffee shop-type facility where the phone boxes are currently located to generate positive foot fall; removing the phone boxes; encouraging community groups, traders, street artists to come and use the newly created space."
The report added: "There is a longer-term aspiration to change the flow of traffic.
"It is hoped that future schemes could be financed through possible section 106 contributions, possibly from the development of the Town Hall car park.
"The Town Centre Company is also investigating the feasibility of a big screen to be placed within the Castle Circus area.
"This could help draw more people in to a pavement café style environment."
Trader John Doherty, of Dot's Pantry, is chairman of the steering group for the Town Centre's Company.
He said: "I went to one meeting where some councillors said 'Castle Circus has been like that for 20 years and you're not going to change it'.
"It's true that if there's nothing in place when the dispersal orders end it will just go back to that and we can't fix things overnight.
"We have to change perceptions and the bad name. We need decision-makers who are optimistic.
"I want parking charges brought into line with Newton Abbot.
"I have surveyed shops which have branches in Torquay and Newton Abbot which shows that they are gaining customers in Newton and losing them in Torquay.
"That is because of our higher parking fees.
"We need farmers' markets and a tree at Christmas time. These plans could be implemented over a number of years.
"There are no chairs for the drinkers and drug-talkers to congregate on, but now we are missing them.
"A lot of our customers and the students are complaining that there is nowhere to sit.
"I have heard it said that British Telecom doesn't want to remove the phone boxes outside the town hall because they are some of the most profitable ones in the country.
"Everybody else has a mobile nowadays but the drug dealers use those phone boxes."
British Telecom spokesman Jason Mann said they had no plans to remove the phone boxes from outside the Town Hall.
He said: "It is certainly not true these phone boxes are the most profitable in the country. They are certainly well-used.
"We have no plans to remove these phone boxes which have been located at Castle Circus for many years.
"If people are using these boxes for illegal purposes we have a range of things we can do to help, such as restricting the line so that it does not take incoming calls.
"Of course, it is possible to trace calls on any line. According to our records, we were approached by the local authority but we were not approached directly by the police. We will be contacting the police to offer our help."
Landscape architect Linda Curr, who has worked for 25 years on streetscapes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, drew up initial sketches to show how the Town Hall square could be extended after being invited to Torquay by Ian Broadfoot, chief executive of the Torbay Town Centres company.
She said: "It has to be linked to an overall vision. These are only quick sketches after I visited for a couple of days.
"There are smaller things that can be done to start to progress things. Even these small adjustments can make a big difference. People need to use that area in a different way.
"The Town Hall is just such a splendid building. We need to get people to walk up there and to linger, not just turn around and walk away again.
"I worked on one project in Glasgow and we included outdoor cafes and people said it was too cold in the winter and it would never work, we don't have the climate for it.
"But people do adjust and it is used all-year-round now.
"The sunnier corner outside the Town Hall is on the side where the traffic islands are.
"That could be extended to create a very large Town Hall square and traffic could be moved, although that's part of a bigger issue. Something needs to happen there.
"Then you have to look at the way that part of the town links all the way down to the harbourside, with a sequence of different spaces and places for people to sit."