THESE photos show what the borough council calls the “historic heart” of Basingstoke, where £280,000 of funds were earmarked six years ago to “breath new life” into the area.

But as the town centre programme came to an end earlier this year, the Gazette has asked businesses operating in the Top of Town area whether it has made a real difference.

The programme launched in 2013 when Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council appointed Chas Bradfield as town centre project manager, tasked with generating new investment into the Top of Town and determining how cash earmarked for its regeneration should be spent.

This included £100,000 from the Government’s High Street Innovation Fund, which came from the Mary Portas review into the UK’s declining high streets.

When the Gazette spoke to businesses operating in the area on Monday morning, it was deserted, except for a group of people congregating around a bench drinking from cans of alcohol.

According to the manager of Pandora’s Box, which has been at the Top of Town for 16 years, this is normal.

She said: “Nothing has changed in five years. We have been to meeting after meeting and they talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Anyone who lives in Basingstoke knows what it’s like, reality is staring you in the face.”

She added: “My daughter won’t even bring my grandchild up here to see me. There are fights, screaming, drinking, I live and breathe it. If I didn’t live here and came up to the Top of Town I would be petrified. But because I work here it doesn’t faze me.”

Ranbir Singh, business manager for McDonald's, said they spend nearly £600 a week to employ security guards who work from 3pm until 9pm every day.

He also said the fast-food restaurant lost around 100 customers a week when the Post Office relocated to The Malls.

Uyur Cigdem, manager of Poppins, who has been running the café for two years, said rough sleepers who congregate in the area and drink alcohol create an unwelcoming atmosphere.

He added: “There’s lots of people drinking and sleeping on benches. The Post Office is gone and HSBC is closing this week so everything is shutting down so it’s getting worse. The Post Office generated footfall; people came here afterwards but all these people don’t come up here anymore.”

Asked if he knew where £280,000 had been spent, he said: “I have no idea.”

One of the owners of Stones Jewellers also had no clue where the money had been spent, having operated in Wote Street for 10 years.

He said: “The environment has deteriorated with drinking and drugs. I have had customers from other towns they are gobsmacked. When people come from Portsmouth or Southampton and say it’s bad that’s a shame.”

Referring to the money spent, he said: “There were some new plant pots put in and hanging baskets. If I can’t say where it’s spent then it hasn’t made a difference.”

He added: “It’s sad. The saddest thing is McDonalds needing bouncers on the door to get a burger.”

Paul Reynolds, manager of Timpson, said the situation with street drinking had improved recently following the introduction of ‘rangers’ who the Gazette understands are tackling anti-social behaviour in the area on behalf of the Business Improvement District.

He added: “They move people on so that’s a big problem where people are drinking, swearing and fighting, that seems to have calmed down. It does put people off coming here.”

Councillor Rebecca Bean, cabinet member for borough development and improvement, described the area as “vibrant”.

She pointed out various events which have been held at the Top of Town to improve visitor experience and support businesses, including B Active, Day of the Dead and a Christmas market.

She added: “A total of 43 grants for improvements and business support mentoring were also awarded between 2015 and March 2019, totalling over £85,000.

“We have supported the Basingstoke Together Business Improvement District since its foundation in 2016 and worked in partnership with Basingstoke Heritage Society to celebrate the area’s history.

“We have continued to make physical improvements in addition to extending free car parking in short stay car parks following feedback from local businesses. Other initiatives include the IncuHive enterprise space, which offers advice, networking, training, mentoring and support.

“Vacancy rates in the town centre stand at approximately 10 per cent which is below the national average of 11.5 per cent and all council-owned units in the Top of Town are currently let.

“We are working on developing a long-term strategy to ensure the central Basingstoke area stays vibrant and responds to consumer trends and expectations for the next 30 years. The town centre is at the heart of our borough and we will continue to work closely with our partners to ensure it remains a great place to shop, work, live, dine and play.”