Our young, vibrant town needs new ideas and a new direction

Both of us writing this article were not born in Slough but moved here, and what this allows us to do is take a ‘step back’ view of the town, and its development. Since moving here, we have been impressed by the towns resilience, the warmth of its residents and the amazing and quite unique advantages it has with its connections and location. We love Slough for these reasons, and more than consider it our home.

There are three simple observations about the town that will stand the test of time; firstly, it is a town with massive potential with a huge business presence and great connections to the wider world. Secondly it has one of the youngest populations in the country, as publicised by the BBC earlier this year which makes it almost unique in our surrounding area. Thirdly it is a town with very limited infrastructural means and that means residents quality of life is critical. However, despite these observations, we have come to realise that we have a council which is working counter to all of these – and often making contradictory decisions which leave its residents confused and disadvantaged. It is not being clear about its long-term vision for the town nor making the most of the towns unique advantages and nor is it properly balancing the needs of residents in the short term either:

We should be making much more of our business strengths

The level of commerce that occurs within Slough is quite simply amazing. Stats from Centre for Cities shows that in 2016 the number of start-ups per 1000 residents was the second highest in the country and that the town was also the most productive city in the country at an average of £82,000 gross-value added per resident in employment. However, digging deeper, you also find that the town had the eighth highest number of business closures in the UK – which shows that whilst we have all the conditions to attract strong business growth, we are not providing the right conditions for them to become sustainable in our town. The council just isn’t doing enough to develop the right commercial environment.

Our town, once dubbed ‘Silicon Slough’ for its business parks and tech-firm presence, now looks to be losing its edge as we fail to keep pace with other areas of the country who are taking strides to make their areas the place to do business. An article earlier this year points to Slough losing its status because it is failing to attract the IT companies it once used to.

You would think that with Slough’s extensive commercial base, and its young, bright population, that apprenticeships would be strong, but according to figures from Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership the number of apprenticeship starts in Slough are nearly 30% lower than average across England. Not only do we not have the right number of apprenticeships, but we are also oversubscribed with over 15 applications per apprenticeship, more than double the Berkshire average. Slough also has the lowest levels of advanced and higher-level apprenticeships in Berkshire. All of this could be helped by having a council whose approach was to work much more closely with Slough business to encourage investment in apprenticeships.

We should be making more for our young people

Despite our town being the youngest in the country, we have been without any higher education provision in the town since 2010 when the Thames Valley University abandoned the TVU site in the centre of town. The latest census data from 2011 showed that whilst our rank on number of 16-17 year olds in education was the 18th highest in the country, the number of students 18+ was ranked just 76th, and the number of people in our town with the highest level of qualifications was a poor 174th. Not only do we have large numbers of young people in education, but we also have the highest GCSE A*-C pass rates in the country. We have simply not been good in Slough at providing young, talented people with the opportunity of higher education, and as such we lose our talent in what is in effect a ‘brain drain’ to other towns. Couple that with the report earlier this year on Silicon Valley that we discussed earlier, and you can see that we are heading for a double whammy – losing talent and losing high-tech jobs to other towns.

The council has also failed to make strides in developing the town centre over the last 10 years, and business failure rate has been far too high – and the numbers they do not lie – business churn is much higher than average, as highlighted by independent think tank Centre for Cities, which means the town is not fostering the right environment to sustain businesses longer term. These are the businesses that could create even more opportunities for young people in our town.

Even the council acknowledges the decline of our high street - its own annual monitoring report for 2016-17 the fact that Slough as a shopping destination had dropped from 57th place in the country to 147th place between 2006 and 2016, and last year fell a further 16 places in the same annual study. A study commissioned for Reading Council it shows that whilst the Slough retail economy size was measured at £412m in April 2016, it is estimated that it loses around half of that to outside of the borough, which means potential jobs lost to other areas. This neglect has meant jobs that should exist in the town have not been created.

For us now, any talk of investing in High Street retail in Slough is too little too late. The pace has been all too slow, and by the time any development happens it will no doubt be outdated and irrelevant. Whilst announcements have been made about investment to create a new shopping centre, other towns in Berkshire such as Windsor and Bracknell invested years ago in implementing their visions for their town centres. Given the way the high street is changing we find it hard to understand how Slough will be able to compete - why would retailers like M&S invest in Slough in the next 5 years when they are already closing stores nationwide because shopping habits are changing? Many shopping centre firms are now having to revisit their investment plans as a result. it would not be surprising at all if the Qatari investors that Slough Council had lined up for the high street have already made their decision to run.

We must be doing more to make Slough a unique destination

Considering this we must ask the question - why don’t we reinvent Slough town centre completely? Windsor is an historic tourist destination Slough cannot compete with and Reading and Bracknell are at least 10 years ahead of the curve on being primary retail destinations. As one of the youngest and most diverse places in the UK, why are we not thinking about making Slough a ‘Shoreditch of the West’ – centred on making the town the creative and start-up business capital of the Thames Valley, with a modern, flexible multi-purpose town centre that can compete in its own right against its Berkshire neighbours whilst providing young residents with opportunities to flourish here but also all residents with good local facilities.

If we go even further, why don’t we integrate with the idea of a town-centre University campus and facility where the two concepts could co-exist alongside retail and leisure facilities for residents? An article for the Guardian last year which outlined the growing impact universities have on regional economies, which focused on the Midlands, shows how much of a benefit and catalyst the presence of a burgeoning higher education sector can have on a region, and the same could equally apply to Slough. Earlier this year the University of Salford announced £800m plans to transform an area of the town into the ‘Brooklyn of Greater Manchester’. If we were to combine a vision for Slough that focused on creative industries, up-start tech business and a university campus we would have a unique selling point in the Thames Valley and surrounding area which is far more sustainable than building yet another shopping centre. It is no wonder young people abandon the town now when they see such little progress and opportunity here – and a lack of a vision that would encourage them to stay.

We should be protecting residents’ quality of life better

Slough has expanded rapidly over the last twenty years and is projected to grow further, which is putting the infrastructure of the town under increasing pressure. This is reflected in Sloughs road network over that time too, with the number of goods vehicles using Slough roads has grown significantly since 2000 according the Department for Transport. Yet despite these realities, the council has not only done very little to mitigate this but has also found itself taking decisions which inherently make it worse.

Slough Council has also just announced the closure of its Slough Cycle Hub near the railway station, which follows concerns raised by councillors back in June around the lack of uptake on the cycle hire service, which in the financial year 2017/18 was used just 126 times – that’s just over twice a week across the whole of the town. This is a damning indictment of their failure to understand the real needs of residents and shows the waste that has gone into failed schemes be that for cycling or in trying to improve our road network.

Every which way you look the council has driven policy through which fails to acknowledge properly Slough’s limited scope for significant infrastructure change. Its virtual blind backing for Heathrow expansion is highly likely to add to the problems in years to come, and further create problems for residents – yes it is important to acknowledge that many residents jobs rely on the airport, and therefore that the borough should support Heathrow’s continued success in its current form. Expansion only serves to further add to the boroughs health problems, which are already well out of line with other local authorities, as well as push more traffic on to the roads and put more pressure on housing demand – including crucially continue to feed the Slough property boom in prices, pushing home ownership further out of reach of local young people. Not only that but it will also put even more pressure on local services such as schools and health.

Residents deserve better value and transparency

Another example of short-sightedness is the recent plan announced by the council to move its offices from its current St Martins Place site to the town centre site at 25 Windsor Road. In doing so not only does it add in excess of £50m in debt to the councils books on the back of a deal with an offshore firm in Gibraltar, but it will only add to the traffic problems that exist in the town centre which is could easily tackle by having a robust strategy to encourage more flexible working practices with its staff, such as working from home, using technology to enable it. This is just but one example of policy failure – councillors recently raised concerns over the councils own ‘Boris Bike’ cycle-hire scheme, which has shown that bikes were hired at a an average rate of just 8 bikes a day in 2017-18, and this against a backdrop of decreasing cycle usage in the borough as shown by the Department for Transports own traffic counts.

Given the points we have raised here, we would argue that this council is not acting in the interests of residents and has not been doing so since it took over 10 years ago. It is not contradictory to act in the interests of residents and at the same time take a balanced view of the towns development. This council too often displays a ‘development at all costs’ mentality, which we believe is putting the town and its residents under greater and greater strain.

In its blindness, it is creating a monster which it is clear it is increasingly unable to control and manage. Unfortunately for this council, it has become mixed up and distracted by its divisions within its own crowd, and after years in charge has lost any clear vision it might have started out with. It is time for something different, and if that is what residents think too we would urge them make it happen. Slough deserves better, and as a group of Conservatives in Slough we know our fellow members, supporters and councillors will continue to work with residents to deliver better.

Lee Pettman - Campaigns Lead, West Slough Branch

Grzegorz (Greg) Duda - Member & candidate, Central Slough Branch