Hello Ripon. Let me introduce myself, I’m Alan Weston and last week I started work as Ripon’s City Development Manager. As some of you will probably want to know a little about me and my background and my initial thoughts about the role I thought this was an appropriate topic for the first in hopefully a series of occasional and irregular blogs.
I was born and grew up in Grimsby on the south bank of the Humber before moving to University in Leeds, back to Grimsby and then Durham. I now live in Northallerton with my partner Kirsty, my young son Oscar and we’re expecting another baby in June.
I’ve worked in local government for almost 14 years now in a variety of roles, starting out by working to support and promote businesses in the transport and logistics sector in North East Lincolnshire, followed by a role in helping to attract inward investment into the area.
In 2002, I began working for Wear Valley District Council, an area of great contrast from rural Weardale in the west to the historic market town of Bishop Auckland in the east. I started in economic development just as the major employer in Weardale had announced the closure of the cement works. It was a difficult period, supporting businesses to survive, trying to attract new ones to the area, and helping those people affected find new jobs.
I then moved roles and began managing a small team with responsibility for regeneration programmes and projects. Over the years we delivered and supported many projects from building a new business centre to working with community groups on projects supporting unemployed people; from planning the regeneration of a historic park to working with volunteers to organise a food festival; from town centre improvement schemes to day-to-day town centre management and many more things besides.
In 2009 I began working for Middlesbrough Council, as the Town Centre Manager, overseeing the management and development of Partnerships to link the business community (retail, commercial, leisure sectors) together and with the public sector, and the planning and delivery of projects to move the town forward. My starting the role coincided with the severe downturn in the economic climate and significant changes to the public sector. Despite this the town centre has performed relatively well, contrary to what many people predicted and that is in part because of partners coming together to tackle some of the issues faced.
And now in January 2013, here I am in the recently created role of City Development Manager. I’m sure some of you will be wondering what this job is all about. Well, the brief I’ve been given is working with all of the City’s organisations to realise Ripon’s ambition and fulfil its economic potential. So, what does that mean? Well, there is a feeling by many people that Ripon is under-performing – not doing as well as it could. A feeling that the economy could be stronger, the city centre could be more vibrant, more people employed locally.
It is immediately apparent from the people I’ve been able to meet in the few days that I’ve been here, that there is lots of enthusiasm and a desire to achieve this and help improve Ripon. There is a real willingness for people to volunteer to get involved, proud of the city they live in and wanting to make a difference. That’s what gives me the confidence that by working together we can move Ripon forward and ensure it fulfils its potential.
And what a great opportunity we’ve been given. Like many of you, I was delighted to hear recently that on the 5th July 2014, the world’s greatest cycle race – the Tour De France – will visit the north of England for the very first time and will pass through this historic city. It’s an opportunity to showcase the city, whilst the eyes of the world are on us, potentially providing a huge economic boost to the tourism and leisure industry, but to maximise the potential, we all need to work smarter and together.
And whilst we have one eye on next year we also need to think about how we can work together now. Much has been made about the death of the High Street, following the high-profile announcements of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster having being placed into administration. The mix of retail in Ripon means that the City hasn’t been affected by any of these changes but the way of the world means that the closure of a business employing 100 people attracts a greater media spotlight than the plight of the closure of 10 independent businesses each employing 10 people, despite the impact on the community being the same.
Having listened to the debates, I don’t believe that every High Street is dying, but they are undoubtedly changing and places need to embrace that change. If they don’t then I’m afraid they will suffer. Customer expectation has changed and vibrant places will be those that can understand their customers and theirs wants and needs, and can adapt to provide it. What the local resident wants from Ripon City Centre will be different to what the visitor and tourist wants and we need to try to meet all these different but interconnected expectations.
But this role is not just about tourism and the City Centre, it’s about the whole economy of Ripon, and there are some really important businesses in the area that provide employment, be they the large employers, or the small growing business. We need to continue to work together to allow these businesses to grow, expand and flourish in Ripon.
And with the Neighbourhood Plan too, the people of Ripon have the opportunity to look even further ahead and plan for the longer-term future of the City. Getting involved in helping to shape the Ripon they’d like to see in the future.
All in all, I think this is a really exciting time for Ripon, yes it’s going to be potentially challenging, but I think we’re in a far better place than many places. Soon we will be receiving a copy of a report compiled at the end of 2012 which will provide us with data about the performance of the City and how this compares with other locations. This will provide us with a starting point on which we can build our plans for the future.
My predecessor has provided a strong platform on which to build and it is apparent that there are already lots of things taking place and I already have some ideas about other projects that we may be able to deliver now to try to help improve the Ripon economy too. However, I am just one man, with a huge project list already so as I meet more people I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions too. What do you think we need to do to ensure that Ripon is a thriving place with a vibrant economy? And how can you help to make a difference? I look forward to meeting you, having the opportunity to discuss this and working together in the future.