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More empty buildings in town centre now than when £1m restoration project started

Empty buildings on Broad Street, Blaenavon pictured in August 2022. The Market Tavern is currently being refurbished. <i>(Image: Google Street View)</i>
Empty buildings on Broad Street, Blaenavon pictured in August 2022. The Market Tavern is currently being refurbished. (Image: Google Street View)

THE number of vacant properties in a town centre has increased during a £1 million regeneration project to refurbish heritage buildings.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund announced £1.1 million towards the restoration of buildings in Blaenavon’s Conservation Area in 2018 – and the programme is still ongoing, having been extended due to the Covid pandemic that struck in March 2020.

A mid-term monitoring report found the pandemic has “affected the town centre heavily” and reported an increase in properties that aren’t in use since 2019, with many in that town that forms part of UNESCO World Heritage site “boarded up and in a state of decay”.

In the year before the pandemic there were 11 vacant properties in Broad Street – considered the core retail area of the town – and that had increased to 17 this year.

Pontypool Fawr councillor Mark Jones asked if there is likely to be any reduction in empty buildings when the monitoring report, that was produced in April, was highlighted in a review of the Townscape Heritage Programme.

The independent councillor, who chairs Torfaen Borough Council’s prosperous communities scrutiny committee which looked at the programme at its most recent meeting, asked: “Do we anticipate this trend is likely to be reversed?”

The council’s team leader for the project Rebecca Hartley said: “Every high street across Britain is suffering and it is not unique to Blaenavon, but we have seen an increase in vacant properties within the town centre over the project period.”

Despite this she said the project is currently restoring two of the vacant properties, the Market Tavern – which is considered a prominent building – and 24 Broad Street, while she said grants funded by the Welsh Government are also being used to bring another building, which has two vacant commercial units, back into use, while a third is being restored by its private owner without any public funding.

She added: “There are signs the private sector is beginning to recover, but we will not know the full impact (of the programme) until the final report, it may be bucking the trend.”

Bethan McPherson, the council’s head of communities and renewal, said two officers will offer further support to businesses in Blaenavon, who will also look at attracting new businesses to the town, and work as part of the ‘Destination Torfaen’ project that is intended to boost visitor numbers to the area.

A report to the committee, by Ms Hartley, stated many of the boarded up properties that are in decay had been identified as “high” or “medium” priority for restoration under the project which suggested “property owners are still reluctant to undertake property improvements in the current economic climate and may still require the incentive of grant funding.”

Though the report said empty properties detract from the appearance of the town’s buildings it said the completion of the Market Tavern and 24 Broad Street will, with other buildings completed under the project, achieve the aim of a “more complete heritage façade along this central part of Broad Street”.

The review had also identified an increase, since December 2020, of food and drink businesses in the town centre and that the number of shops trading had increased from 23 in 2020 to 30 in 2022.

The review stated: “There remains a good foundation for a successful and vibrant high street, but more directing marketing opportunities for new businesses need be considered.”

The programme also has a target of increasing footfall in the town centre by two per cent, during the project period, but Ms Hartley said a change in the counters used to measure that means figures are still to be determined.

The counters were changed as “difficulties” with those used over the first 18 months meant only “patchy” data was provided. A final figure will be produced when information from the two sets of counters can be combined.