Many towns in the country aren’t tourist or shopping destinations but towns who provide a vital role in meeting the needs of their local community. These ‘convenience’ towns are often overlooked when it comes to funding, such as the Future High Streets fund but it is just as important to revive these high streets as well as the larger cities. While regeneration is often cited as the silver bullet that will fix the challenges facing the high street, this is a long term solution that is unlikely to come to fruition without the funding required.
There is much evidence that people want to support their local high street but the fundamental issue remains that many high streets who are seen as a ‘convenience towns’ aren’t meeting the needs of their local community in a way that would increase footfall and revive these towns.
So what needs to be done now to make a difference, support businesses and revive the high streets in these towns?
Understand and respond to changing consumer behaviour
• Convenience means consumers can get what they want, when they want and delivered in a way that is convenient to them. That could mean online shopping, your weekly food shop delivered to your door, a hairdresser coming to your home or your favourite restaurant delivering your Friday night meal. For businesses this may mean they need to explore selling online or be open when customers are around, which could mean Sundays or in the evening. Businesses and towns also need an online to offline marketing strategy, and use digital tools to drive traffic to their store and town.
• Parking is often cited by businesses and residents as a reason why people don’t use businesses in a town and prefer to use out of town retail parks. Many councils are therefore exploring free parking initiatives to increase footfall and trade. Free parking, ideally for 2 hours, as well as evening, Sunday and Bank Holidays are essential to remove this barrier to people visiting their local town.
• Changing values – the desire for sustainability and the concern about climate change mean that many customers want to use businesses with similar values. Businesses therefore need to adapt and consider how they can meet these needs. Even though convenience is still the main driver, councils also need to consider long term sustainable transport options for a town and how they encourage cycling, walking, recharging points for electric cars, shuttle buses or public transport.
• Who are your customers? By 2030 one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over. In addition, 17.6% is aged 10-24. Towns need to meet the needs of these two very diverse groups of people. Are there places to site and dwell, for the elderly to rest and the young to hang out? Are towns accessible and dementia friendly? Do towns provide part time work opportunities for teenagers? Making these groups feel welcome in a town makes a real difference to the sense of community, as well as trade.
• Focus on experience – for independent retailers this is often intuitive, knowing their regular customers, what they like, what they might like and offering a great personal service as well as added value through advice and expertise. Towns are also changing to embrace experience-based businesses such as escape rooms, coffee shops, beauty salons, dog grooming parlours or yoga studios as well as vibrant night time economy which all create a point of difference and more reasons for people to visit a town.
• More than just shopping. Many towns, often through Business Improvement Districts, focus on delivering events to create a sense of vibrancy and people then want to visit their local town as there is ‘always something going on’ whether that is a market, festival, Christmas event or family activities. Such events mean that people visit a town because they want to, rather than need to, with resultant secondary spend with businesses.
A vision and strategic approach
• Councils, and individual councillors, are often lambasted when there is any discussion about new housing developments – whether new sites or infill in town centres on brownfield land / spaces. Concerns are raised about the impact on infrastructure with traffic congestion, doctors’ surgeries and schools being the main issues. However, people (and therefore housing) are good for our town centres and a large housing development leverages funding for such infrastructure improvements as well as providing the potential footfall to revive these high streets. But what is often lacking is a strategic approach to planning and economic development which means that any decisions can be taken in the context of the overall visions and aims for the local area and the community as a whole.
• The vision needs to include the mix and location of housing and businesses in and around a town. This is not easy to fix if commercial property in a town is owned by many individual landlords but councils, with government support, need to encourage start ups and the right mix of businesses– whether they are key attractors and essential services such as supermarkets, banks, a post office and library, social enterprises, co-working spaces, entertainment facilities, community meeting spaces or experience-based businesses. Some councils have gone as far as purchasing commercial units as they become available so that they can curate a town’s offering more easily.
• Creating an inviting space. Town centres need to be inviting places that people want to come and stay – there need to be places to sit and dwell and places need to be safe.
Role of Government
• Councils can’t be expected to do everything though, but need Government support, specifically by creating a level playing field with business rates which does not disadvantage the high street.
• As well as the much needed funding being provided to High Streets through recent initiatives, government support for councils with a vision to encourage start ups and the right mix of businesses to fill vacant units in a town and meet changing consumer needs.
Why we all need to work together
To make a town successful and to revive these high streets everyone has to work together with the county, district and parish councils, business improvement districts, individual businesses and the local community all coming together to develop and deliver a shared vision for the town. While regeneration might be a long term solution required in many areas, there are still things that can be done right now that would make a difference and support our high streets.
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