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Councils face pressure to fix high streets

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Councils are not doing enough to prevent high streets becoming ghost towns and reduce crime in the wake of the recession, according to a poll of UK shoppers.

An ICM survey found that 71% of respondents thought it fell to local authorities, not government or retailers, to reinvigorate commerce, combat antisocial behaviour and maintain the high street environment.

Fifty-six per cent said that their local high street had deteriorated over the past five years, with a third reporting that it had become a ‘run-down’ area, according to the poll commissioned by LGC’s sister title Retail Week.

The high number of shops being left empty was a concern for 60% of those surveyed, 35% highlighted expensive parking as a problem and 26% were worried about antisocial behaviour.

The least satisfied shoppers were in Scotland, with 65% reporting their high street had declined, compared with 41% in London and 50% in the South East.

Phillip Mind, a senior policy consultant at the Local Government Association, warned that vacancy rates in retail premises were still rising. “Councils are aware of this and are doing a lot to support the local high street, such as running arts and cultural events to try and drive up footfall,” he said.

In April 2009 then communities secretary Hazel Blears announced a £3m fund to prevent high street decline and Mr Mind said the LGA had been lobbying the government to give councils more powers to vary business rates and more easily change the use of retail premises.

“We’ve had some progress. There are now things called ‘meanwhile leases’ which enable you to change the use of a particular retail space for a short term, and that allows local community and arts groups to occupy an empty retail space for a period of time,” he said.

Ashley Wilcox, corporate communications manager for Camden LBC, said it was important to instil a sense of local pride. The authority’s ‘Love your local high street’ campaign, which was launched with money from a £6m recession fund last June, has promoted local ‘hotspots’ using publicity such as lamppost banners.

The council started a competition on social networking site Twitter to involve residents in the campaign.

“In evaluations most residents agreed the council should be running this sort of initiative. Awareness of the campaign is very high, at 80% of residents. Businesses generally say trade has improved as a result,” said Mr Wilcox.

The ICM survey also revealed that people in Wales were more concerned over run-down environments and antisocial behaviour than any other part of the UK.

Tim Peppin, director of regeneration and sustainable development at the Welsh Local Government Association, said there were several funding streams available to Welsh councils to improve high streets, including through European Union convergence programmes.

“There is scope to look at high streets as a focus for investment in the future. If you bring employment back into the town centres then you generate extra demand for the shops themselves,” he said.

  • ICM Research interviewed a random selection of 2,046 adults online in February. Results have been weighted to be nationally representative. For full results, visit the ICM Research website or call Michelle Hesse on 020 7845 8304.
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