Yesterday’s newspapers reported that Mary Portas has suggested our empty High Streets could be filled with market stalls to bring them back to life. Not a bad idea, but if people simply aren’t shopping in a town because they feel it’s an unpleasant place to be, then what’s the point of having 50 market traders setting up pitch?
I spent an hour this afternoon walking around Altrincham in Cheshire. It was frankly grey, dirty and depressing.
Once thriving, Altrincham is now a mix of abandoned offices, bankrupt independent house related businesses and charity shops, with the last remaining big name retailers hanging on grimly until the bitter end. Trouble is, our whole way of life has changed – that isn’t due to a recession, it’s down to technology.
Once M&S, WH Smith and a few big name banks pull out, Altrincham will be finished, at least as far as shopping goes. In terms of office space, it’s already game over – we simply do not work in 9-5.30pm`office jobs’ in large numbers any longer…at least not outside of London.
Online retail, the rise of home working, outsourced freelance consultants and `destination shopping’ via Malls, has all but killed off the traditional High Street in Britain – it’s time for some radical ideas.
MAKE OUR TOWNS SAFE, CLEAN AND UNIQUE
It sounds obvious, but so many small towns are woefully neglected. The councils basically took all the business rates in the good times and used them to gamble their pension funds in Iceland. The country I mean, not the frozen food retailer. If small towns have pleasant `quarters’ where traffic is minimal and people feel safe to wander, stop and chat, sit on the pavement and have a coffee etc that would be a start. Fix the pavement first though…
Next up, we need to offer rent protected retail space in `quarters’ where food shoppers, vinyl record collectors, shoe lovers, vintage clothing buyers, or someone who needs their computer fixed can find a cluster of vibrant, small businesses. Councils can support such businesses with `fairs’ or themed festivals four or five times a year as well – use social media to bring a buzz, some excitement to the town itself.
We need a law that protects small towns from the invasion of the charity shops – they need to make up no more than 10% of the retail space on any given street. Independent bookshops, music, clothing, shoe and other retailers cannot compete with charity shops – and we need small traders to revive small towns. Big business will never do it, charities simply soak up the budget shopper revenues – that has to change.
On the same lines, small cafes and independent restaurants should be paying 50% of the business rates of the big brand food chains. The chains have the advantage of buying food in bulk and outsourcing everything from accounts to HR, so let’s level the food business playing field. Anyone selling food which is produced locally – within 10 miles – gets a further 10% off. That encourages local farmers to sell their produce locally.
BRING THE PEOPLE BACK INTO OUR TOWNS
Much of the abandoned office space in small towns should be converted into low cost housing. You could even convert many old fashioned Victorian pubs into very nice flats. There is plenty of housing demand, so we should offer interest free loans to those who can find 10K to invest in refurbishing or converting an office into a flat.
Very few people can save up 30-50K for a deposit on a house, but 10K is achievable. In the same way that credit unions offer loans to those who save, councils could offer `housing unions’ similar support as part of their local regeneration plans.
If you give people a chance to create a decent home from what is basically sound, but neglected office/shop stock, for an affordable price, they will come. They will build it.
Finally, promote your unique small town identity. If the area has a history tell that story, promote festivals, make something happen. Use Foursquare, Facebook and Groupon to offer people real incentives to physically `check in’ to your High Street – embrace the internet, don’t fight it.
Small towns cannot compete with the Trafford Centres or Westfields. Neither can they halt the inevitable rise of online retailing. To survive they have to offer more than just `distress’ shopping experiences and the chance of a £60 parking fine.
It’s time to rebuild our towns and make them interesting, friendly places to live and work in once again. It’s going to be a long, slow process, but if politicians can stop squabbling over the last few million in business rates and think laterally, there’s a glimmer of hope.
Agree, disagree or got an idea to revive your town? Post your comments or tweet me @npointsocial