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Your Town: Watton, community values and spirit, but facing the challenges of a shrinking high street

PUBLISHED: 10:27 22 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:28 22 May 2019

The former Watton airbase fromthe sky. Picture: Mike Page Homes/Building/Housing/Development

The former Watton airbase fromthe sky. Picture: Mike Page Homes/Building/Housing/Development

©Coypright Mike Page, All Rights Reserved Before any use is made of this picture, including dispaly, publication, broadcast, syn

Watton is a town situated in the heart of Norfolk's Breckland district with a population of about 7,000 and is one of the oldest towns in the county being mentioned in the Domesday Book from 1086.

Watton High Street has seen shops disappear across the years. Picture: Marc BettsWatton High Street has seen shops disappear across the years. Picture: Marc Betts

The town played a large part in Second World War, hosting an RAF base, and in the First World War its sawmills saw the country readily supplied with timber for the war effort.

Residents of Watton say it has fantastic community values and spirit and that there are aways people willing to do voluntary jobs like litter picking and support work.

Former mayor, Tina Kiddell, said: "The sense of community is what made me want to become a councillor.

"We have such a strong community in Watton, it really is a great place to live and you'll find many people who do you right.

Watton has a strong sense of community and value. An RAF base was in the town from the 1930. PHOTO: Sue DentWatton has a strong sense of community and value. An RAF base was in the town from the 1930. PHOTO: Sue Dent

"Obviously we have a few moans but it's no different to any other town."

But the biggest issue facing the town is the disappearance of the high street as more shops and services close. More than half of respondents to our survey, 57.1pc, said that on a scale of one to 10, the issue of empty units rated 10 for importance. This compares with parking in the town, for which 47.7pc said this wasn't an issue at all.

Alison Powley has lived in the area for 42 years but rarely finds herself visiting the town centre.

She said: "I have seen the town change drastically over the years. This is the first time I have been into town to meet a friend for coffee in a long time.

George Freeman MP, Tina Kiddell Mayor of Watton, Deven Changela and Chandni Changela owners of the Watton Edwards News opening the new post office after it was closed for nearly a year. Picture: Victoria PertusaGeorge Freeman MP, Tina Kiddell Mayor of Watton, Deven Changela and Chandni Changela owners of the Watton Edwards News opening the new post office after it was closed for nearly a year. Picture: Victoria Pertusa

"I think it is the same with most market towns now with shops closing down, empty premises and on the whole looking a bit shabby."

But the businesses that have stayed in the area, Spoilt for Choice, MyHill's and Berwick Jewellers, are vastly celebrated as parts of the community to which residents remain loyal.

Last year the town lost its Lloyds bank leaving only a Barclays, this left many people having to travel to Dereham to use their bank.

In the same year clothing shop Ruffles closed down. Gail Cooper has lived in Watton all her life and worked at the shop for a year.

Watton has a strong sense of community and value. An RAF base was in the town from the 1930. PHOTO: Sue DentWatton has a strong sense of community and value. An RAF base was in the town from the 1930. PHOTO: Sue Dent

She said: "The high street is like a rat-run, people use Watton to go through. It is not a place you would say 'lets go shopping' and now it is going to be even less.

"The empty units put people off, it doesn't look inviting. It's ever so sad looking back to what Watton used to be. Our towns are dying, slowly dying, and I don't know what we can do."

Despite its rich history, in our Watton survey, 26pc of respondents said they were proud to live in the town, with 21.4pc saying they strongly disagreed.

It also showed there is a wish for the return of a larger grocery store in the town centre.

Richard Crick has lived in Watton for 40 years. Picture: Marc BettsRichard Crick has lived in Watton for 40 years. Picture: Marc Betts

In 2017 the town also lost its main supermarket Budgens after the company went into administration.

On top of this, 82.5pc said Watton is not attractive to business with the majority of people calling for business rates to be dropped and improvements made to the town centre that would highlight its value.

Richard Crick, 76, has lived in Watton for 40 years and believes the town is missing that spark.

He said: "The high street has gotten worse, it is terrible, there is lack of a basic grocery store. We have Tesco up the road but it means people will be leaving the high street.

"Usually people would pop to the store on the high street and then use the other shops but that isn't the case. People miss out on what we do have and just go out of the town.

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"It makes a real difference for the people who live here when the stores and banks close."

A common theme throughout the survey is the need for more facilities and opportunities for young people in the town. Residents agreed with this by 42.9pc, with 31pc strongly agreeing. A further 73.7pc said there was not enough opportunities for young people to start careers. Ideas raised include a cinema, which the town has not seen since 1973, parks and a swimming pool.

Mr Crick added: "Years ago there used to be a swimming pool and time and time again I hear 'we are off to Thetford or Dereham to go swimming', I can't see why we can't have this in Watton.

"The town needs something that makes people say 'let's go to Watton'."

An idea that split the town was a retail park. Many thought that this was not a good idea but suggestions were made to link this to the need for more facilities for young people, with the park not only able to host shops but also entertainment outlets.

This prompted fears it could open the door to large national chains such as Poundland and Greggs rather than the preferred boutique bakeries and independent shops.

A diverse town

Immigration was a major talking point of the survey.

It can be traced back to 1936 when an RAF station was in the town. Americans started moving to the area and when war was declared in 1939, foreign troops also started to arrive at the station.

After the war a number of the soldiers decided to stay.

Within our responses there were a number of people who welcomed diversity.

One said: "I am most proud of Eastern European immigration and how they have been assimilated into our community."

Another added said: "The community never fails to try and improve itself and the fact that lots of people try to help others."

The influx of migrant workers has led to more international shops opening, giving a much-needed boost to the high street, selling produce from around the world.

But some Watton residents do not feel that these are adequate to replace a major grocery shop.

Housing, schools, health and traffic

Housing is a mixed issue in the town.

Prices for living in Watton were deemed to be acceptable for the area, with 78.5pc of respondents highlighting that affordability was not a major problem.

But, with the introduction of new small size developments, 42.9pc felt that infrastructure was a challenge facing the town.

From 2001 to 2014 around 515 new homes were built in the town with another 500 could be built if all applications to Breckland Council are approved.

But despite the increase in population, 61.9pc are happy with the quality of the schools and nurseries.

There has been a noticeable increase in traffic as pockets of housing is built with little change to the road system.

Included in this is the lack of health care, with residents saying they are in need of an NHS dentist and for the Watton Medical Practice to be increased or another surgery built to deal with the new influx of people.

What are your thoughts on living in the town? Write to EDP Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email edpletters@aechant.co.uk giving your full name, address and contact details.

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