Saturday, 05 December 2020

I have always loved Henley

THE woman tasked with improving the economic vibrancy of Henley says it is the job

THE woman tasked with improving the economic vibrancy of Henley says it is the job she has always wanted.

Helen Barnett started work as town manager on September 1. She is employed by Henley Town Council and will work with other local authorities, shops and businesses and the community in a bid to attract more visitors and increase footfall.

She began work the day after the closure of Bell Street opticians Chilton Watson, the 13th town centre business to shut so far this year.

Ms Barnett, 50, is the fourth person to hold the post but the first to do so full-time. Until last year, she spent 12 years as head of marketing for the Bracknell Regeneration Partnership, a £240million project to transform the centre of the Berkshire town, which is about seven times the size of Henley in terms of population.

She knows Henley is different, not least because she has spent the last three years living in Crowsley, a hamlet between Sonning Common and Binfield Heath, with her two teenage children and before that was in Emmer Green for about 20 years.

“It is so easy to be positive about Henley — it has such a magnificent assets,” she says.

“It is a completely different environment to Bracknell — it is so much prettier and we have a river.

“There was no question about applying for the job. I have always wanted to be town manager for Henley and I have a lot of worthwhile experience which will stand me in good stead.”

Ms Barnett grew up in Ascot but knew the town where she now works as her parents would take her to Henley and Sonning to show how beautiful they were. She also attended Henley Royal Regatta.

After school she studied geography and sport at St Mary’s University in Twickenham and then landed a graduate placing at a national magazine publisher.

Ms Barnett recalls: “I had an interest in teaching but I was offered a job working for Condé Nast. I decided not to do the extra year at university and instead went to work for magazines like GQ, Vogue and House & Garden. I was there when they launched GQ in the UK, which was very exciting.”

She moved from publishing into property marketing at Kingfisher, the parent company of B&Q and other home improvement retailers, and then switched to the marketing team as Chartwell Land. In 2003 she was poached by one of Chartwell Land’s former executives to head up the marketing team for the project in Bracknell.

Ms Barnett explains: “The managing director had gone to work for Legal & General and asked if I would like to work in regeneration as he had a fabulous job available.

“Legal & General and [asset manager] Schroders had partnered up and they were taking on the regeneration of the town centre. The council were very forward thinking and had done their own masterplan.

“I was involved from the early stages and was there for 10 years, although the development had been talked about for 25 years.”

The town centre development, now called the Lexicon, is set to open in a year’s time. It includes one million sq ft of shopping and leisure space, 70 new shops and restaurants and a 1,300-space car park. The building work also involved the restoration of landmarks and improvements to roads and infrastructure.

Ms Barnett says: “A lot of the work was behind the scenes with retailers and some had to move out.

“While I was there I started the Pride of Bracknell Awards, was involved with Bracknell in Bloom and chaired a Shopmobility committee for a number of years. I worked with some lovely people who did it for people who really needed it.

“I also ran a campaign to keep people coming when there were fewer and fewer retail sites.”

Ms Barnett left her role last year and then freelanced with Bracknell and Wokingham College and then joined the marketing team at Shiplake College.

“That got me integrated with the area better,” she said. “Shiplake is the most amazing school and the headmaster is fantastic. I had a lovely time there. They work really hard and the children do outstandingly well in their exams but I felt like I needed a bigger challenge.”

Before landing her latest role, she avidly read and kept cuttings from the Henley Standard in order to gauge public opinion about what Henley has to offer.

She says: “It would be difficult if you went to a town where you don’t know anyone but I’m a member of the rugby club and the cricket club and I know a lot of the business people. I go to the Kenton Theatre and I have been to the River & Rowing Museum.

“It is easy for me to help our tourist information centre and work with those people to help visitors enjoy their experience of Henley.”

Her role was previously called “town centre manager” but she is not limited to Market Place and the retail space in the surrounding streets.

“I’m not the town centre manager, there is no demarcation,” says Ms Barnett. “If it is in Henley and it is a business then it is equally as important as retail in the town centre.”

Even so, she is keen to tackle recurring issues such as footfall and the number of empty shops, the theme of the Henley’s Standard’s long-running “Think Local” campaign.

“I’m looking forward to making sure we have got the right infrastructure for events and festivals and to get business links and partnerships working,” says Ms Barnett.

“We want to encourage new businesses into the town by increasing footfall. I am very aware, having worked in the retail environment for a long time, that independents do struggle and do need support and help. We want people to shop local.

“It does not help having empty units but I think we can do creative things with the units that are not occupied. We can try pop-up shops or find other uses. I will be looking at those things. I will also be looking at the website and social media to try to develop footfall and we’re looking at improving signage.

“Everyone complains about traffic and parking but we are working with the county and district councils to see what we can do about those things.”

Ms Barnett intends to make Henley “the best town in the world to live, work and visit by 2030”, as was outlined in the town’s business plan two years ago.

But she says the “town team” that was set up to help deliver the plan will need to be looked at again.

“I am evaluating all the groups that meet in the town,” she says. “It is important that I go to see all the retailers about setting up groups that work for the people that come to them. If you have a town team and agenda that is too large then you’re not going to achieve anything and then people won’t come.

“I want to establish groups that deliver what is needed for businesses. The town team was quite a few years ago and now we have to move on.

“I went to my first Henley Business Partnership meeting and people wanted to know what I was doing because people feel there is a bit of a gap that I will now fill and I will improve businesses relationships where I can.

“It is about consolidating relationships to ensure they’re getting the best out of everything they can and working with councillors, South Oxfordshire District Council and others to ensure everyone is happy. It’s all about working for the greater good of Henley as it is a magnificent place.”

As well as reviving previous initiatives, she will start some of her own.

Ms Barnett says: “We could establish awards for local people who have gone over and above the call of duty, not necessarily in business, but members of the public who have caring roles, or do a lot for charity and people who put something back into the community.”

This reminds her of her visits to Henley as a child only this time she has the opportunity to improve it.

Ms Barnett says: “We make it better and fine tune it where we can. It is a remarkable place to live and work. We have amazing parks and have won a gold award for Henley in Bloom five times in a row. We have the regatta, the festivals and the Living Advent Calendar — all these activities go towards giving the town a huge presence.

“We have to build and gather additional momentum and everyone should be proud to be a part of Henley.”

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