29 Jun 3. Evolution of Gillingham
Described as the commercial or geographical centre or core of a town; the town centre was often the hub of a community. In the 1981 census Gillingham had a population of 5440 and the only street through the town ran through the centre. Nearly every commercial business was located on the High Street or just off it. Footfall was high, as most people did not travel far from the town for any reason.
The previous decade had seen the implementation of some aspects of the 1971 Gillingham Local Plan which had highlighted the need for additional housing, industry and most importantly a new road.
In those days the High Street was the town. Locals shopped there for meat, fish, vegetables, chemists, clothes, shoes, and even the car would be serviced at one of several high street garages. The fronts of many High Street buildings backed onto, large for the time, industrial units housing an array of industry such as glue factory, bacon factory causing the street to gain a reputation for the smell. Part of the plan was for these businesses to have their own industrial areas away from the town centre.
The new relief road Le Neubourg Way opened allowing big transport access from one side of Gillingham to new industrial parks such as Brickfields and even the Station and Old Market area. Houses began being built commercially, Wyke Primary school was built. A new type of shop not an independent arrived; Waitrose. With its only access from the new relief road it remained linked with the town by pedestrian bridges. The area around this new shop had been designated for other commerce to drive visitors into the town. In reality, the area was left to overgrow and was finally bought by Waitrose for their overspill carpark to be created.
The High Street began losing the long-established businesses the town had encouraged to move out giving rise to short term independent shops. New houses brought in estate agents and building societies, architects, furniture and carpet shops. Most businesses joined Gillingham Chamber of Commerce and benefitted from the networking opportunities this provided. In 1991 most Chamber members were linked to the High Street
After the millennium the town took an upturn in popularity. The road structure although not on a motorway or dual carriage way allowed easy access to Salisbury, Yeovil, Dorchester and even Bath. The train opened up commuter opportunities further afield, London, Southampton, Exeter or Plymouth. More houses were built, more people moved into the town and by the 2011 census the population had doubled to 11,756. Another new primary school, St Mary the Virgin had been built amongst the latest housing estate to accommodate the flood of new families moving into the town.
The town continues to grow. The High Street now is still the geographical core of Gillingham but the commercial and industrial centre is harder to define. It was not just the commuter belt that had suddenly taken off for the town, but the development of the internet and distance working erupted as a new breed of independent and often solo workers began trading. Computer based companies, graphic designers, virtual secretaries are now in business using clouds rather than the high street. Photographers, digital virtual reality software companies, webs services, language training, health clubs, beauticians, bio companies all began trading using the new and sometime scary social media for their promotion and advertising.
Gillingham Chamber like its neighbours still have great membership numbers currently 96 but from that number only 26 are the traditional High Street businesses. Many are based on Brickfields, Peacemarsh or Wyke. But many are virtual or based at their homes on some of the new estates.
July 2018, sees the latest development of the Gillingham Neighbourhood Plan (GNP) which has been an evolving document since its inception in 2012. The plan has been worked on by many different groups from the town and there will be a referendum on July 12th to be voted on by the largest population in Gillingham’s history. The GNP describes Gillingham as having ‘about 70 shops and 1000 businesses located in the area’.
One of the key elements for the town plan is ‘an enhanced town centre supported by the mixed use of regeneration of the Station Road area resulting in better integration of shopping, education, leisure, cultural and transport functions’
The GNP goes on to describe the vision that Gillingham will have a ‘strong and vibrant town centre, where the variety of town centre businesses generates a positive atmosphere in the High Street with activity during the day and night time.’
The plan further goes on to address the high number of ‘working from home’ businesses that now make up a major part of all communities; Gillingham being no exception. It includes in its recommendation for flexibility in working/living accommodation the statement; ‘the internal design and layout of new housing is the flexibility for more people to work from home.’
Gillingham is on the brink of a new era in its history. The town itself is predicted to have a population of 17,000 by 2031 which is a three-fold increase from the 1981 census figures. The town centre will cover new and exciting development areas around the station, Chantry Meadow and the existing High Street. With business and employment concentrated in Brickfields, Kingsmead as well as the many small artisan and home-based companies.
Gillingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry will be an integral part of the town development both on an advisory and supportive role but also with a growth potential from the many businesses coming to the area.
To join the Gillingham Chamber of Commerce and Industry download documents here.
To view the Gillingham Neighbourhood Plan
To vote on the plan, polling stations will be open from 7am – 10pm around the town and surrounding hamlets.
References : Gillingham – the making of a Dorset Town by Dr John Porter
Gillingham NP-May 208- referendum version