CREATING the right formula to regenerate our high streets
The Times Bricks & Mortar section has published an interesting article (July 18th) entitled 'The high streets that survived and thrived'. It looks at a number of towns with successful high streets and points to a correlation between towns and local areas which are full of great independent shops "not jammed with chain stores and strangulated by one way systems". Few people would argue with the article's assertion that "what makes a high street great is open to debate, but the bustling focal point to a village or town is a fantastic selling point for property and can add significantly to an area's cachet and prices".
In the July cabinet reshuffle, Penny Mordaunt MP was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, with responsibility for breathing fresh life into our local high streets. Her predecessor, Brandon Lewis launched a contest last month (June 2014) to find the best local high streets in the country, results to be announced later in the year. Will there be any common denominators?
As we wait to find out, here is a possible formula for the high street. However it requires local authorities and government bodies to actually deliver real benefits, not just pay lip service to the work of Mary Portas et al. It uses the acronym CREATE, as success can be created, we can no longer leave it to chance, because the business environment has never been more complex, requiring many skills that perhaps small, independent business owners do not have. Whilst most towns do have some sort of town centre management, it needs to be more creative and innovative to have any real chance in revitalising local high streets.
Create the right conditions. Offer reduced business rates, enforce landlords to reduce rates once a building has been unoccupied for a certain length of time; encourage them to offer low risk 'pop up' opportunities; provide free or cheap parking options (see case study).
Actively recruit businesses which are likely to attract people to the local area and offfer them incentives and support. Whilst business owners must have control over their own business identity, any new business should add not detract from the existing businesses, providing products and services which are not already on the high street; or else high quality alternatives that have the potential to bring in more people.
Business owners must not be complacent, but encouraged (and educated) to understand that their business must constantly evolve, to meet people's changing needs and expectations. This may be seen as meddling by some, but they need to understand that people have so many ways they can spend their money, business owners need help to give their offers fresh and appealing. An adaption of the old adage 'you are never too old to learn'?
To attract people to spend money in their local area, the local environment and the individual businesses must be attractive. Local authorities must reinvest in local shopping centres, removing unwanted street furniture, putting in features that people will take pleasure in. The same applies to the businesses, just because they are there doesn't mean they automatically have a right to be used, they need to earn their keep. Perhaps local authorities could provide low cost loans to encourage people to invest in making their businesses more attractive. If this is part of a holistic campaign they should be guaranteed a return on their investment.
The goods and services must be targeted at the people who live in the local area who are the most likely to want to use them and should be marketed to the local population throughout the year, to serve as constant reminders to use, 'use us or lose us'. Weaning people off the convenience of online shopping and supermarkets can only be done if people are given real and tangible benefits from shopping and spending money in their local area.
Enjoy, or perhaps you can come up with a better use for the final E!
There is a short case study of one such regeneration project, featured by the Times, a town I know well and visit whenever I am in the area. It is a regeneration story based on all of the above.
Narberth is a little town in Pembrokeshire, which has changed from a dull little backwater to a thriving destination for locals and tourists, over the past two decades, a period when many other small towns and local high streets have struggled. The town's success has been largely thanks to the work of the Narberth Action Group and a planned step-by-step regeneration programme. Two decades ago its high street was insignificant, shabby and run down, with a number of empty premises. The Narberth Action Group drew up a plan for the town, centred on making it a destination, with interesting shops, quality places to eat and drink, galleries, bookshops and frequent events throughout the year, to draw people into the town.
Pembrokeshire County Council was persuaded to lower business rates, which reduced the risks for new businesses. The Action Group then managed to get the Council and other key groups such as the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) to sponsor the creation of workshop units for business start-ups and the provision of business start-up advice, and, then, a comprehensive programme of environmental improvements in the town.
Alongside this, the Council provided free limited-stay on street car parking and £1 for the use of the car park in the town. This no longer applies, but parking charges are low and not a deterent to spending time iin the town. However, this was sufficient to get the wider community behind the scheme, envigorating business confidence and encourage people to invest in the town, a treasure trove of specialist shops, including delis and artisan food shops, organic butchers, unusual gifts, art and antiques, which draw people to the town.
You can read more about the Narbeth regeneration plan in the Why Narberth?: How one community regenerated while others fell by the wayside. A case study by The Tavistock Institute – Evaluation Development and Review Unit. here
And visit narberthonline.com - every town should have an online portal?
Will having a woman managing this vital portfolio make a jot of difference? Someone who understands how high streets are used, as women are the primary users of most local high streets. We will have to wait and see.