End of an era as Willow Brook Centre manager moves on to pastures new

Scott Lahive (right), pictured with Joy Souch.

Scott Lahive, manager of the Willow Brook Centre (Bradley Stoke’s “shopping and town centre”) since it opened in October 2008, has moved on to pastures new after six years in the job.

Journal editor Stephen Horton caught up with Mr Lahive in mid-January, as he prepared to hand over the reins to his successor in early February.

When did you start work at the Willow Brook Centre?

I started work in March 2008, six months before the scheme opened. In fact, I had involvement from February, so it’s just coming up to six years ago!

The centre opened in October 2008, after which the old Tesco store was demolished and, a little while later, the ‘retail terrace’ (now containing Boots, Brantano etc.) was constructed.

My previous job was at a predominantly leisure-focused scheme in Cheltenham called The Brewery.

When I arrived in Bradley Stoke, the foundations and first columns of the Willow Brook Centre were just being established and I was based in a Portakabin in the site compound (roughly where the McCarthy & Stone and Merlin flats are now).

Whilst the centre was under construction, my tasks included facilitating client visits, recruiting the centre team and procuring services such as cleaning and security. These are things often done by outsourcing specialists but, in view of the economic climate at the time, it was decided that they could be done by the manager-designate of the centre.

How did the opening day (13th October 2008) go?

It went really well! The one thing that overwhelmed us was the sheer volume of customers – far greater than we had expected. In particular, we couldn’t believe the amount of footfall from local youths; we’d really underestimated the numbers of young people who would pass through the centre on their way to and from Bradley Stoke Community School (BSCS).

With only four stores open on the first day, we had expected footfall of around 30,000 per week but actually got 50,000 per week, a figure which increased to 60,000 per week by late November/early December. That’s an amazing figure considering that we had only been projecting 50,000 per week once the scheme was fully completed and at that point we hadn’t even commenced work on the second phase (the retail terrace)!

How well do you feel the Willow Brook Centre has been received by the public?

It would be naïve to suggest that we have managed to please everyone. People do approach us with requests for certain types of store (predominantly clothing retailers), so whilst I would hope that the vast majority of people are very happy that they can do their shopping in Bradley Stoke and they can buy, and do, more in Bradley Stoke than ever before, there will always be an element of the population that wants to do other things that we are unable to fulfil. I would hope that people are very happy with the centre and the fact that you can’t just buy things here – you can go to the dentist, have your eyes tested, get medicines from our two pharmacies (one of which is open late into the night), have a meal at Harvester or go for a coffee with friends at Costa.

A lot of people would have wanted to see other retailers here, but, sadly, our close proximity to Cribbs Causeway means that the likes of Next and Marks & Spencer have never seriously considered coming to Bradley Stoke when they are able to trade from one of the country’s top regional shopping centres just two miles away.

What have been the low and high points of your time at the Willow Brook Centre?

Compared to what has happened elsewhere, we’ve lost a relatively small number of traders over the last few years. [Ed: These have included Curves, Nationwide, Panasonic and Peacocks] To lose a retailer of the quality of Panasonic was very disappointing, especially when you’re trying to maintain a balance of value and mainstream outlets and not become biased towards one end of the spectrum.

What has been very positive, however, is that whenever a unit has become available, there have always been one, two or sometimes three interested parties, meaning that we have been able to re-let within a few months. Actually we’ve had far fewer “casualties” than other local schemes, such as Yate and Thornbury, and are proud to have been between 98% and 100% ‘let’ over the last three years, which is better than any other shopping centre in the south west.

A high point has got to be our achievements in the area of waste management during 2013, for which we have won a number of national awards. Within a short space of time we reduced the amount of waste going to landfill from a relatively high value to just 5%, a value that hasn’t been seen for many, many years in the industry. And in terms of our general sustainability, we’ve been able to reduce gas usage by 80%, electricity usage by 35% and water usage by 15% – figures which even the largest shopping centres have been unable to match. In fact, it’s really a double success, because the savings have been achieved over a time period in which the numbers of retailers and customers have grown.

Are you happy with the range of shops and services currently at the centre?

It’s always been our ambition to broaden the range of retailers at the centre. It’s disappointing that we haven’t been able to attract a big fashion store or sports outlet, but we will certainly continue to approach them.

The catering element at the centre has been hugely successful. Although we only have one coffee shop (Costa) and one sit-down restaurant (Harvester), both of them trade extremely well, and we’re currently looking at how we could expand our offering. This will be difficult, as we’re 100% let, but it may be, as the market continues to pick up, that we can look at ways of expanding the centre’s footprint. Alternatively, we may find that opportunities to bring in new catering and leisure retailers arise as leases expire.

The centre’s takeaway-orientated catering outlets (Subway, KFC, Domino’s and Greggs) have also been a hit with customers.

We were disappointed when the post office very publicly said they would not support any form of facility here, albeit we didn’t have a tenant lined up to take on a franchise. That was a shame, because it would have been a great service and we would have been prepared to support them by actively looking for a suitable tenant.

Some policies of the centre have been poorly received (I’m thinking of the road humps and the parking restrictions and fines). How do you feel about this?

For every policy that has been negatively received by some members of the public, there has been at least an equal number who have benefited. If you chose to only adopt policies that nobody would find controversial, you would probably end up making no decisions whatsoever and you’d never make any decision that would benefit the majority of customers.

It’s always disappointing when people are publicly concerned, because we don’t want to go out of our way to either inconvenience people or offend them. But if we’re happy that we’ve considered all the issues and we make a decision for the greater good of the shopping centre, its tenants and its customers, then, yes, I’m happy to be the face of that.

What many people perhaps don’t understand is that we’re never the first to adopt these policies – we do what’s been tried and tested elsewhere.

On the subject of parking fines, we don’t have a quota of people who we can “let off” and we’re not allowed to intervene in situations where someone has breached the terms and conditions, although we are able to ask for a fine to be waived in a few situations, such as when a disabled driver has genuinely forgotten to display their blue badge.

And on the parking time limit, at four-a-half hours, ours is longer than Yate’s, despite there being more attractions in the immediate vicinity of their centre.

The centre is supposed to be a town centre as well as a shopping centre. To what extent do you feel it has fulfilled that role?

In the time frame over which the centre was developed and has been open, the public’s expectation of a ‘town centre’ has changed dramatically. In practice, people no longer go into a town centre to buy, for example, clothes, because they now like to do that online. It’s now about doing things that you can’t do online, such as having your hair done, going to the bank, visiting the post office etc.

We’ve been able to ensure that many services that previously weren’t represented in Bradley Stoke are now available. For example, you can now go to the dentist, visit a coffee shop and access children’s education centres, an accountant and a recruitment consultant.

These are all things you would expect to find in a town centre, albeit the layout isn’t that of a traditional high street. But that’s why the centre has been so successful, because the traditional high street model is actually something that is failing, so it would have been wrong to build that sort of very traditional scheme in Bradley Stoke just at time when we, as customers, were turning our backs on the concept.

In fact, a lot of other areas are now building similar schemes that aren’t the size of the town centres of twenty years ago, but actually provide the services that people need in order to survive, and at a time of day that they want to us them. So, at 6pm, after you’ve finished work, you can go and have your eyes tested, buy a greetings card or have a coffee with friends – all things that you wouldn’t be able to do after 5.30pm in a traditional town centre.

I think not only have we done a very good job in fulfilling the majority of town centre services, but we’ve also redefined what services should be in a town centre.

We’re pleased that we have been able to provide space for local community groups to showcase themselves in the town square or elsewhere within the centre and we’d love to do more of that. We want the local population to see the centre as “their” space rather than “ours”. It’s something that we don’t charge for and I’d really like to encourage more groups to come forward in this way.

Town centres often act as a magnet for young people, which can sometimes lead to anti-social behaviour. How have you managed this?

We have followed on really from the ethos and policies of Bradley Stoke Community School (BSCS), in that we’re “firm but fair” and have a zero tolerance policy towards anti-social behaviour.

We always had a very good relationship with BSCS and if we’ve had problem youths we’ve been able to approach them and seek advice on how to manage that. But to be fair, the majority (and I would say 95%) of the local youths are very well behaved and are a very good customer for us. In fact, some of our tenants, like Subway and KFC are held up by the younger end of the market!

The town council chose to build its new office at the Jubilee Centre rather than renting space at the Willow Brook Centre. Was that a disappointment for you?

Yes, most definitely. We appreciate that they made their decision based on public finances and we totally respect that, however, we were very open to negotiation for them to be here, because, again, we are aiming to continually evolve the offer here and make it even more of a town centre. So the fact that the council decided to relocate their offices to an “out of centre” location, albeit with parking, which is effectively what it is, was a disappointment, especially as we’re trying to encourage public transport and a mix of services. Financially, I don’t believe there was a great deal of distance between the two options. If they had taken ‘already built’ and redundant space, we could have understood it, but the fact that they chose to build their own accommodation rather than take vacant space at the centre was a disappointment.

More bus services are now calling at the centre. Is this something the centre has encouraged and has it boosted trade?

Yes, it’s something that we are encouraging and we’ve been liaising with the local bus operators for many years now to increase the level of service and our success in doing this was is one of the justifications for introducing our new parking policy, since staff members now have more options for getting to work other than having to take the car. We also hope that the centre will benefit from the major public transport investment that is planned for the town in the coming years.

How well do you feel the centre has co-existed with its residential neighbours?

As soon as we’ve been made aware of an issue by our neighbours, we have been quick to respond. Some of these issues weren’t anticipated when the scheme was being developed and only became apparent once it opened. But when you consider that the centre is right in the middle of quite a densely populated housing area, we receive very few negative comments from our residential neighbours. We will continue to work with them to achieve positive changes.

In hindsight, the application to convert a unit a the top end of the car park to a late night takeaway [Domino’s] wouldn’t have been an ideal use and we support the view of local residents, which is why we didn’t pursue that after concerns had been expressed.

We have, however, successfully applied for planning permission for a click and collect kiosk in the car park and it’s now down to Tesco as to if and when they choose to construct that facility.

Where is your career taking you next?

I’m moving on to take charge of a new shopping and leisure scheme that will be opening in Hereford, which is commutable from where I live in Gloucestershire. Whilst the scheme may be bigger, I wouldn’t like to say it is better.

I’m very sad to be leaving Bradley Stoke and I think, as somebody who was new to the town when I came here in 2008, to see and to feel the community spirit in such a new town and, even though we may not always appreciate it, to see how proactive the town council and South Gloucestershire Council are, is very different to what you’ll see elsewhere in the country.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, the fact that people want to engage with you and the fact that people do take an interest in where they live to such a degree as they do in Bradley Stoke. It’s got such a tremendous community spirit and it’s very sad to be leaving that behind.

Any final thoughts?

If I could change one thing about Bradley Stoke, it would be the roads and the communications

Although there isn’t much more development planned for the defined boundary of Bradley Stoke itself, the pressure that is now on the roads of Bradley Stoke and our communication links to the motorway or where people need to travel to work is just getting more and more difficult. I’ve seen it worsen over the five years I’ve been here – my office is right on Bradley Stoke Way and every year I’ve seen the tailbacks coming further and further down the road.

Whilst I agree that we do need to invest more in public transport, we also need to invest in our roads and we need to do something very quickly before the town is brought to gridlock, which I believe we’re only a couple of years away from.

Ed: Thank you for your time. Good luck in your new job!

Photo: Scott Lahive (right), manager of the Willow Brook Centre from October 2008 to February 2014, pictured with centre administrator Joy Souch.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Bradley Stoke Journal news magazine. Our magazine is delivered FREE, EVERY MONTH, to 9,250 homes in Bradley Stoke and Little Stoke. Phone 01454 300 400 to enquire about advertising.

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