COMMUNITY leaders have rejected a claim by the district’s top Tory councillor that Keighley is “a dying town”.

Cllr John Pennington, who leads the Conservative group on Bradford Council, made the accusation during an online meeting of the local authority’s executive.

He was speaking as part of a discussion on Keighley Business Improvement District (BID).

Afterwards Cllr Pennington stood by his comment, citing the number of empty premises in the town and describing BID as “just another tax on businesses”.

And he added that if a scheme to pedestrianise Cavendish Street went ahead, it would lead to the demise of more traders.

He has won support from a long-time Keighley businessman, Dennis Pagdin.

But many prominent figures are critical of the comments and have been quick to defend the town.

Steve Seymour, manager of Keighley’s Airedale Shopping Centre, took part in the meeting.

He said to Cllr Pennington: “Support Keighley, don’t knock it.

“People are waiting to take on empty units in the centre. Yes we’ve lost M&S and Beales, but that is not a Keighley issue, it is a national issue.

“The town needs support from the Government and the council. We don’t need comments from people saying the town is dying. It doesn’t help anyone.”

Keighley’s MP, Robbie Moore, said this week that the town – like others across the country – was facing high street challenges.

But he added: “We also have some great things to offer, some brilliant independent businesses and some incredibly passionate and dedicated people who are determined to ensure Keighley is put back on the map – and I am one of those people.”

The Lord Mayor of Bradford and Keighley councillor, Doreen Lee, describes Keighley as “a lovely town full of wonderful people”.

She added: “All small towns are feeling the change but we will get through it. People are honest, hard-working and – like me – love the town they were born in or have made their home.”

Keighley BID manager, Paul Howard, feels the “negative” comments are a reflection of the struggles town centres nationally are going through rather than a “true understanding” of the main function of a business improvement district.

He added: “Town-centre retail generally is suffering – and Keighley is not isolated from this – but to say it is a dying town is not helpful in the least.

“Town centres are going through huge changes and we are in a strategic position to help manage this change through the existing networks we have and by working together with businesses.

“Keighley BID is here to provide member businesses with a package of services designed to improve their own profitability and the area in which they operate, and we have seen several success stories working through our five-year business plan.

“Alongside direct support to businesses, there is also general investment in the town centre such as enhancing the Christmas lighting provided by the council, cleaning and minor refurbishments to the Cavendish Street canopy, funding planting schemes along North Street and Cavendish Street and funding towards projects such as the memory garden on Church Green and the recent public realm works in Low Street.

“Throughout the unprecedented Covid lockdown, we have continued to support businesses by providing assistance in obtaining grants and promoting those that have been in a position to continue trading. Without a BID in place, the investment in these activities and promotions and many more simply wouldn’t happen.”

Town mayor Cllr Peter Corkindale said that whilst the closure of stores such as Marks & Spencer and Beales was “disappointing to say the least”, Keighley had many things to celebrate.

He cited examples of lathes and escalators manufactured in the town, and quality cloth produced locally, being found across the world.

He added: “Yes we need investment in the town centre, for without investment Keighley could very well die. We need the green space on North Street to be retained and enhanced in order to entice people to stop and visit. We already have the finest memorial square in the north of England, the first Carnegie library, Cliffe Castle, East Riddlesden Hall, the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and some of the finest countryside you could ever wish to see or visit.”

Bradford Council leader, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, says Cllr Pennington’s comments “do nothing to support the people who are working hard and with pride to make Keighley a success”.

She adds: “I hear nothing constructive whatsoever from Cllr Pennington – no positive suggestions of how to unlock Keighley’s potential.

“Meanwhile, this Labour council is getting on and investing and working with local business people who are dedicated to pushing the town forward and making it a great place to live and work.

“Of course there are challenges we all need to rise to and there are also opportunities. None of the challenges Keighley faces are very different from those faced by towns across the country. What it needs is a supportive Government which brings money in to support jobs, infrastructure and businesses.”

Cllr Alex Ross-Shaw, the council’s executive member for regeneration, planning and transport, said there was a positive strategy for Keighley to “get the right infrastructure in place to support local people and businesses to succeed”.

He added: “Keighley has a strong heritage and huge potential.

“It has hard-working people who care deeply about the place and it’s therefore hugely disappointing to see Cllr Pennington denigrate their efforts rather than support them to succeed.

“BIDs are led by and delivered by businesses. If Cllr Pennington had done his research, he would have found that BIDs deliver on the priorities set by businesses and nationally have a good reputation for doing so.

“The Government has acknowledged that after a decade of its own funding cuts to districts like ours there is a nationwide issue facing towns, which are not getting a fair deal from national investment. As the council’s leadership, we have put in extra investment of over £320,000 to support both Keighley and Shipley’s bids for multi-million pounds of investment from the Towns Fund. We are also working at pace to create business development zones to stimulate new jobs in the Royd Ings Avenue and Dalton Lane areas.

“We have delivered Keighley town-centre road and public realm improvements, we’re onsite with the £10.3m improvement scheme at Hard Ings, we have the £2.5m Keighley Town Heritage shopfronts programme, we completed the successful £5.9m refurbishment of Cliffe Castle Museum and park, we’ve launched the Industrial Centre of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering, we support police activity in tackling crime and anti-social behaviour and we have the planned public sector hub to create new jobs.

“It should also be noted that the major new industrial unit on the site of the former Keighley College Harold Town building will be completed next month, providing high-quality space for around 100 staff in manufacturing firms.”

Cllr Pennington – who represents Bingley ward on the council, but lives at Riddlesden – stands by his comments.

And he says if proposals to pedestrianise Cavendish Street go ahead, “you can kiss goodbye to the remaining shops”.

Cllr Pennington said: “There are already ten empty units, a boarded-up heritage pub, vacant apartments and the once-glorious Victoria Hotel.

“Problems are not solved by remaining silent, but instead by highlighting and talking about them – if that is unpalatable, so be it.

“Some of the work done by the Business Improvement District board should be carried out by Bradford Council – businesses are paying twice.

“I want to know how much the staff and overhead costs are for the Airedale Partnership, Towns Fund and BID offices and see examples of specific businesses which have been helped to ‘reduce costs, manage and survive’.

“Business owners face daily challenges with limited funds and have to get results every day or go bust.

“At a one-to-one with Susan Hinchcliffe, I suggested that the police station should return to its original location in North Street and that the old college site opposite Wetherspoons should be improved to become a central park.”