A NEW shopping complex in Basingstoke could prove a fatal hammer blow to town centre traders in Aldershot and Farnborough, a councillor has claimed.
Despite excitement over plans to revamp Aldershot's historic High Street, Cllr Mike Roberts believes that Aldershot and Farnborough have been left behind and once shoppers get a taste of the swish new Basingstoke centre just a few miles down the road there will be no winning them back.
"The world doesn't owe us a living," said Cllr Roberts. "We have four or five major competitors on our doorstep. There is Reading, and Basingstoke and then Woking to the north-east — and then there is Guildford.
"Unless the Blackwater Valley towns get their act together they will be left behind and be in difficulty. None of us want to see that because we have invested so much time and money into it.
"You remember how things were in Aldershot in 1994 — all the For Sale signs? There was barely a shop in situ in Little Wellington Street, apart from Jerome's. We don't want to go back to that."
Cllr Roberts got a firsthand look at the Festival Place complex last week and was left with a mixture of admiration for the centre — and trepidation for the future in Aldershot and Farnborough.
He made the point that there are 173 bigger towns than Basingstoke — but it has the 11th biggest shopping centre.
"You don't appreciate the sheer scale of it until you go and see it. The Basingstoke developers made it clear that they are looking at an 800,000 attraction area — along the M3 and the Blackwater Valley. They don't see their competition as Reading or Guildford, but this area," he said.
"So what has been happening in Aldershot and Farnborough in recent years to combat this massive potential threat? Well, very little. The shopping repositioning at Farnborough is now only just getting under way, with a clear lack of dynamism, and Aldershot has now lost the momentum that it once had following the very successful five-year regeneration strategy."
Cllr Roberts believes the first step should be to get the Aldershot health centre finished.
"That's the first thing. We must get that done," he said. "There has been a lack of dynamics over recent years and after the Victoria Road shambles, nothing will start until January.
"There has been some progress on the Aldershot High Street, but we were talking about that two and a half years ago — I'm quite embarrassed about it, really - it will be at least another two or three years before anything happens.
"It's just as important that Farnborough doesn't get left behind — we don't want to get into a situation where they lose shoppers to Camberley, for example. It is the only way to demonstrate you are on top of things.
"If we don't, there could be question marks about retailers — and they are already appearing."
Even the Tesco extension in Aldershot, with the prospect of vastly expanded stock and space, will put further pressure on Aldershot traders, says Cllr Roberts.
"Aldershot's Tesco is already the sixth busiest in the country — with 38,000 customers a week," he said.
Cllr Roberts had a couple of positive suggestions. He asked: "Will Aldershot's Union Street and Little Wellington Street be considered for roofing in like the Whitgift Centre in Croydon, or will Queensmead be focused in a similar way like MEPC, when they owned the site, were encouraged to do?"
Cllr Roberts' claims, though, were strongly refuted by Rushmoor Council's chief executive Andrew Lloyd who pointed to the Westgate development and High Street plans as evidence that Aldershot is moving with the times.
"We are certainly not complacent," he said. "I don't deny that Basingstoke has had a major renaissance, but the land and business opportunity to do that is very different from Aldershot and Farnborough.
"Basingstoke is lucky in that it owns most of that land, but we haven't been in that position in the High Street.
"But it has all been about creating the framework to encourage the owners to work together to deliver the things that are needed.
"Aldershot has a uniqueness in the type of shops it provides, and the Westgate development will provide a strong focus on leisure, with its cinema, nightclub and cafes and restaurants, and then the health and fitness provision and a top quality hotel, which the area badly needs.
"There will also be a retail element and homes.
"Major retailers have already shown an interest in the High Street plans and that is very encouraging.
"If Mike is suggesting we have taken our eyes off the ball, I totally refute that."