As THE pubs, cafes and hairdressers spring back into life tomorrow, it will be great to see Andover Town Centre back in business after a three-month hiatus.

Following the reopening of the shops last month, I spent some time in town talking to retailers – and whilst they all appreciate the rate reliefs and business grants they’ve received via Test Valley, some are undoubtedly more chipper than others.

That adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more appropriate. In fact, the Panorama programme pre-lockdown summed up the changing nature of Town Centres in one simple stat, that High Streets up and down the country have lost 25 per cent of their retail units over the last decade. Add to that the effect of Coronavirus and you’d be forgiven for forecasting a bleak future.

But Andover is fighting back. Not just because we have a higher percentage of independents than many other towns and, therefore, the national move away from identikit town centres puts us in a comparatively decent position but because the council is investing money, time and effort in creating a new masterplan for Andover.

As I said in my annual council speech, regeneration is the key to recovery. This is a view shared by the internationally renowned town centre planner, Wayne Hemingway, who has been helping shape our plans. He says that it is ‘becoming commonly accepted that a transition to more independent retailers, social and green spaces, events, employment and housing now needs to speed up to avoid further decline.’

So during lockdown, work has continued apace, with the council and its consultants busy reviewing the comments from our latest round of public consultation which took place late last year.

Results from that consultation – which we are publishing today – showed that more than two-thirds of respondents highlighted the redevelopment of the Chantry Centre as their top priority.

This is music to my ears, not just because we bought the Centre last year to facilitate wider regeneration but because it gives us the opportunity to bring the theatre into the town centre. To create some really fantastic public spaces, interspersed by retail and to better show-off our historic assets. Especially if the new buildings replacing the Chantry Centre have a slightly different footprint to give the Guildhall more breathing space.

There’s also significant support for more green spaces, which will complement our work at Town Mills. For those like me that aren’t at all fond of the concrete balls and out of date plant cages, you’ll be pleased to hear that the masterplan will also be accompanied by a review of street furniture that you’ll be able to have your say on in the coming months. In the next few weeks, I will be revealing details of briefing sessions for retailers and other key stakeholders ahead of the masterplan’s formal adoption in September. Following that, we’ll be seeking a development partner to help deliver the change.

I’ll leave my final sentence to Wayne Hemingway. He says that ‘Andover has the opportunity to grasp the future now.’

I’m determined we take that opportunity with both hands.