Chelmsford is a cathedral and university town, granted city status in 2012 with a population of around 100,000 residents. Its strong business base means that as many people commute into Chelmsford as residents commute into London. Despite its proximity to the capital, Chelmsford has not only achieved a thriving local economy, but is developing a rich local arts and culture scene and has a strong retail centre.
Chelmsford has worked hard to ensure it does not lose its identity and become a dormitory of London, while capitalising on its locational advantages to enable a thriving local economy. There are some good initiatives underway and the town would benefit from working through how their city vision will be realised to guide strategic decision-making.
There is good local council leadership working both with the community and with the county council on Chelmsford’s vision to be the capital of Essex. Its corporate priorities are to attract investment, deliver local housing needs and high-quality public spaces, enhance participation in cultural activities, and promote healthier and more active living. The council is using the river geography to connect the town and embracing the waterfront, for example in the main shopping area. The council see planning as a positive route to enabling well managed growth and they use it creatively and wisely.
Overall, Chelmsford is a resilient town that has evolved and grown its industries without the need for public subsidy. It is perhaps best known for Marconi and its role in communications. Today the Marconi building houses a number of companies, including the headquarters for the company Benefit Cosmetics. Meanwhile, the town’s links with communications have evolved into the manufacture imaging sensors and sub-systems for NASA space exploration. Easy access from London and lower rentals means Chelmsford also attracts the business administration and support centres for large companies. Anglia Ruskin University is based in the heart of the town, though a split campus means many of the students commute to the campus rather than living on campus or within the town. A major coup is that Chelmsford’s Anglia Ruskin Campus will be home to Essex’s first medical school (opening in 2018). The building provides state-of-the-art laboratories and a commitment to attract local students.
The community groups and cultural development projects stand out as particularly strong element of Chelmsford’s achievement. There are numerous local groups working with communities on a range of issues and empowering communities. There are arts businesses and individuals who are working together to deliver grassroots arts projects connecting with the new Arts & Cultural Board. There is evident energy around the arts.
Housing schemes within the centre reflect a shift in demand from offices to residential. The town centre housing aims to deliver communities within the town attractive places to live for families and older people as well as young professionals, helping to support a more diverse and balanced town centre living. Town centre housing provides a variety of tenures, including shared ownerships and rentals. There are good examples of creating active community spaces within housing developments including safe gardens for young children and community cafés. Car sharing schemes within housing developments is encouraged and edge of town housing discouraged. New housing developments outside the core are creating new neighbourhoods with multi-purpose community centres, new schools and integrated public transport (bus timetables to link with commuter needs). Quality landscaping, safe spaces for play and varied building design further help to build new communities. The council’s approach of creating masterplans for sites, helps foster a strategic approach.
20 years ago, people went to Colchester to shop, now Chelmsford supports a modern attractive vibrant town centre shopping. It is notable that the shopping centre is busy in all the streets, there appear to be no quiet areas, reflecting good design and management that encourages shoppers to explore. However, as demand for retail spaces continues to decline as shopping patterns evolve, it will be interesting to see how the new BID keeps the shopping centre vibrant and viable. Chelmsford has some good projects and the future challenge is to ensure developments are knitted together to create a cohesive and legible city