WOKINGHAM’S new town centre welcomed Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Claire Perry MP this morning (Friday, November 30) as she took a tour around the new Peach Place development.

She was joined by Wokingham MP John Redwood and Wokingham town mayor Julian McGhee-Sumner, as well as owner of new gin bar The Leafy Elephant and managers of the new Waterstones store.

The Minister was quizzed on how she thinks the new town centre will help to boost business for shop owners, and she said: “You’ve got a council who are thinking really hard about what people want and making sure they deliver what they know the town will need. We’ve got loads of housing going up, which is great, but those people need a place to shop and be entertained, so it’s great to see.

“Shopping habits are changing, it is the case that many of us do shop online. But we also do need to see this level of creativity coming back into the high street. We have small business Saturday coming up this week. What we want is a really vibrant place where people want to go and support those small businesses, but they know they’re going to have a good experience doing so.”

Last month the News reported that the research carried out by opposition group the Liberal Democrats suggested that nine in ten businesses in Wokingham town centre had seen a “significant drop in turnover” due to the council’s regeneration works.

Claire Perryy MP told the media about how the government is trying to help local businesses.

She said: “In the budget there’s more help coming out for small businesses and particularly those that are just starting out, some of them will basically not being paying business rates at all, and of course there’s more to be done on rates but councils will tell you that they need some of that money.

“It’s right that we’re trying to level the playing field between online operators who don’t pay rates, don’t pay for clogging up the roads with vehicles, so I think it’s important the government is doing that.

“But ultimately people shop where they want to shop and we have to make sure that the high street is really attractive and vibrant.”

The Minister met with the owner of new gin bar The Leafy Elephant, which is set to open in one of the new Peach Place units in Spring next year, and also spoke to the managers of the new Waterstones book store set to open next month.

She continued: “Small businesses and independent businesses are a vital part of this development as well as some bigger chains - it’s a really good mix. So there’s lots to do, but it feels like we’re seeing the future of the high street today here in Wokingham, it’s a really good project and great to see the council thinking hard about what it needs to do.

“What’s been amazing today is to see people put their money where their mouth is. They’ve taken out a lease on a building here, they want to move in and they’ve got wonderful ideas. Wokingham is a wonderful town with fantastic housing developments. I think the council is thinking really hard about how this isn’t just a place to live, it’s a place to have a community, to work and to have a family.”

Duncan Scott, co-owner of The Leafy Elephant, told the News what he thinks the new bar will bring to Wokingham town centre.

He said: “We hope to bring something that the town really wants. We live here as a family and we have done our whole lives, we know what the town is lacking and what people expect in terms of service and ambience and what they want from their days and their evenings and their free time.

“We just aim to give them somewhere that they can come and enjoy some great drinks and great service.”

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, commended the commercial development.

He told the News: “It’s a great commitment and investment within the town, we want to fill it with really good shops and attractive events as we want to make this a great focus of our community.

“The heart of any of our activities in modern retail is about continuous promotion and exciting events as well as really good shops.”