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The death of the high street? I think not!

On 13/10/14 by Brigid Simmonds (Chief Executive)

"High Street gloom as Britain shuts up shop" claims The Times, but nothing could be further from the truth in the three entries I have judged for the Great British High Streets competition.

I was invited to join the Government's Future High Streets Forum last year and a number of Task and Finish groups continue to look at various topics which will help sustain the high street.

This year the main focus has been to build on the work of the Portas' Pilots and invite entries for the Great British High Streets Competition. Some 135 entries under seven categories were received, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 21, or three finalists in each of seven categories. The categories include cities, coastal, local, market town, village, town centre and London.

I have visited three different entries in three different categories. I have been to Brighton (London Road), Colwyn Bay in Wales and Bishops Waltham in Hampshire. I have no idea who will win, (the judges will be meeting shortly to moderate our views), but I would like to share some thoughts on the enthusiasm, partnership working, learnings for the night-time economy, innovation and the subsequent regeneration of the high street; if you take the right approach.

London Road is an often forgotten area of Brighton. There is clearly social deprivation and without doubt there were too many struggling retail outlets and no-go areas with social issues and crime. When I visited in the early afternoon, it was buzzing. The appointment of a town centre manager has been key in all three submissions. Someone to work with individual retailers, someone to coordinate; act as a focus for the partnership; acknowledge when the area has too much retail and needs some converted to residential. A former Co-operative store is now being converted to student accommodation. A nearby covered market has been revitalised, re-discovered and sells produce at one level and has small craft shops and outlets above. Parks used by drug dealers and street drinkers have been re-developed. Local graffiti artists have been invited to decorate buildings and earn so much respect that they are not defaced.

Colwyn Bay was totally different. It has suffered a decline in the number of tourists, but now the the town is fighting back. There are 27 listed buildings in Colwyn Bay, many of them designed by Sidney Colwyn Foulkes in the 1920s. A new beach, as part of coastal defences, is attracting the tourists once more, but the town centre is attracting visitors too. There are new social enterprises and a shop which offers space for three or four local crafts to sell their wares, good occupancy and cooperation with all retailers.

The role of the night-time economy is crucial to any successful town centre; good pubs, restaurants, good management; the use of tools from Business Improvement Districts, to Purple Flag, Best Bar None or Pubwatch. In Brighton care has been taken to encourage the right type of nightlife. An Enterprise Inns pub, large enough for events, is a showcase for draught ale and a range of different offers. Brakspear is refurbishing a pub restaurant nearby. In Colwyn Bay they are keen to attract more operators to prolong the day for visitors. They need more pubs and restaurants to encourage spend in the evening.

Finally, and again very different but equally successful, is the regeneration of the market town of Bishops Waltham near Southampton. Spurred on by the threat of a major edge-of-town supermarket, the local authorities, [1] societies, traders and Chamber of Commerce have come together to protect their local shops including a butcher, baker, greengrocer and restaurants. Here they use IT, with an electronic newsletter, QR codes around the town which give the history of this medieval settlement, local maps and leaflets, reasonably priced parking (the first hour is free) and events which encourage local schools to bring their parents into town. Every shop had an advertisement for a Halloween competition - children have to find their own particular poster and bring parents to see (and inevitably spend too). There is training for shopkeepers - how to encourage customers to spend money by attractive displays and 'hot spots'.

Partnership is the buzz word everywhere. This is not only between public and private sectors, but also between local authorities realising that they simply do not have the funding to work alone and must share resources with others. Innovation, understanding your customer, sense of community, leadership, empowerment of small traders and ensuring the mix on offer is right; all of these will help regenerate high streets.

There is certainly more to come in terms of what more we can do with technology, but I have been so impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of all I have met while judging this competition and I suspect that all my fellow judges will feel the same. I urge you to watch the DCLG website for examples of good practice to share once the competition is over. But for everyone who writes about the death of the high street, can I encourage you to visit any one of the three places I went to and then spread the word to others.

The high street can and will survive. You only need the right people and the right policies to help it succeed.


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