MATTHEW Voisey, Conservative group leader at Bridgend County Borough Council, gives his thoughts on some of the issues facing Bridgend’s town centre. Here’s what he had to say.
“It is upsetting,” said Matthew Voisey when asked about Bridgend’s dwindling high street.
“If you look nationally it is not unexpected. We have changed the way that we live and I think only a fool would say that we are [ever] going to get all of those shops back or that it [would] go back to the way that it was. It is not going to happen.”
Like many high streets across the UK, Bridgend’s has been hard hit in recent years – not least because of the Covid-19 pandemic – and has seen shop after shop disappear.
Conservative group leader at Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) before the 2022 election period, Mr Voisey, said he believes the solution lies in encouraging more people to make Bridgend their home.
He added: “So many people now have things delivered online. The only way that we are ever going to make our towns vibrant is by making them more service orientated.
“People can live in them to create on-the-doorstep demand.
“This business of town centres just being a place to shop is wrong. They are places for people to live. We have an acute housing shortage. You could live in Bridgend, hop on the train and be in Cardiff in 20 minutes.
“It could quite easily be somewhere were people, who might not be able to afford to live in Cardiff, [can call home].
“We should be aspirational with the type of people that we want to draw in to the town centre – not just low-cost housing. We want to encourage people to spend money and have money.
“If they lived in Bridgend and the town centres then that money will be spent there. If they worked in Cardiff and lived in Bridgend, then on the weekends they will [be] in Bridgend in the evenings.
“People go out to the hairdressers. You cannot have that delivered online. By having services [like] restaurants, bars, hairdressers and shoe repairs – services that people have to go [into town] for – and if they are on your doorstep, you use them.”
There have been some green shoots of recovery in Bridgend. Some empty buildings are already being turned into new accomodation and businesses, like La Cocina Tapas bar on Nolton Street, which was formerly a McDonald’s.
Bridgend College last month submitted a pre-application planning proposal to BCBC outlining its plans for a multi-million pound campus at Cheapside in Bridgend town centre.
Land currently occupied by Bridgend Police Station and the multi-storey car park at Cheapside, which was closed in April 2021, will make way for the new development.
It is hoped the new campus will attract more footfall to the city centre and encourage students to spend their money at local businesses.
Mr Voisey said:
“It would displace some of the footfall, it would bring it back into the town centre, but we need to make sure that the infrastructure is there to support it. Town centres are not really places where people go shopping per se – they go for leisure.
“Shopping can be part of that leisure, but not the primary goal of that leisure. They don’t go to do their shop in the town centre, they go to the town centre shopping as a social activity.
“You will have a much more concentrated customer base. Students who are coming into town will, during their breaks, go into the community to spend their money and that will have a positive impact for certain businesses, but at the end of the day [they] have still got to get in and out of the town.
“I really hope that they re-evaluate the bus station situation and whether it can possibly link up better with the train station. Even though that bus station is quite new, I think it is primed for development.”
Having first got actively involved in politics during his time in Cardiff, when Gwilym Jones was elected as a member of parliament for Cardiff North in 1983, Mr Voisey went on to become a town councillor in Pencoed before being elected as a BCBC member for Oldcastle in 2017.
Alongside his commitments in politics, Mr Voisey also runs a company that designs and builds exhibition stands for clients across the EU and UK. He said that being a businessman has shaped him as a councillor and, he believes, given him an edge over his opponents.
Mr Voisey said:
“I know many people don’t have that passion, but I think it is important that you do. Coming from the private sector, and [as someone] who runs a business and generates wealth I think I can see things from a different perspective.”
However, juggling business work alongside being a councillor hasn’t always been easy, especially with the onset of a global pandemic.
“Before Covid and Brexit we were travelling all over Europe. Brexit made us do things differently, but Covid has just scuppered the industry. We are only just starting to get back on our feet now.”
During the pandemic, Mr Voisey played his part by working at a Covid-19 testing site and also got a job at Tesco. His focus is now on the upcoming local government elections.
Encouraging people to stand for the first time – particularly younger people and those with a job – is often regarded as one issue that the council needs to address.
One of BCBC’s younger councillors, 27-year-old Sorell Dendy, will not be attempting to hold on to her seat this year.
She said the difficulty of juggling council work alongside career aspirations and the level of wages that members receive are among some of the things that need to be addressed to encourage more people to take on the role.
Offering his thoughts on the matter, Mr Voisey said: “We [don’t] see people in work and working councillors. It is the exception rather than the norm. I think we need to encourage more working councillors and part of that problem is that they don’t want to have meetings in the evening, they don’t want to do things differently.
“We have tried to have evening meetings, they keep giving excuses why they can’t, so that is a concern.
“I would like to have meetings at different times of the day, so that you have the evening meetings [to allow] working councillors and members of the public [to] participate.
“I would [also] like to see a different format for council meetings so that councillors can question the executive almost a bit like PMQs – an opportunity on the agenda where questions don’t have to be tabled in advance.”
Mr Voisey will be looking to retain his seat in Oldcastle, which was one of the Conservative gains in 2017, this May.
The ward is predicted to be one of the more fiercely contested in Bridgend county borough this year.
There will be five other candidates vying for a seat in Oldcastle – one other Conservative, Paul Chohan; two Labour candidates, Angela Morelli and Martin Smidman; and two independents, Freya Bletsoe and Ian Williams.
Fellow Conservative in Oldcastle, Lyn Walters, decided she would not put herself forward for re-election.
Victim named as police appeal for witnesses to fatal road traffic collision in Port Talbot
Power round the Gower on E-bike
Cardiff man who used Snapchat to groom has been jailed