The closure of 800 Woolworth stores earlier this year gave a jolt to many small towns as they realised how dependent they had been on Woolies to ‘anchor’ their high streets, attracting customers to nearby smaller shops.
Government initiatives are now in train to promote new uses for the increasing number of shops closing because of the recession. But the challenge for the smaller town centres is to find a distinctive retail role.
The British Council of Shopping Centres (BCSC)’s report Medium-sized and smaller towns: raising the game, published in the spring, concluded that private and public sector partners need to work closely together to create attractive centres with a diverse range of shops and facilities that people will want to visit.
Many smaller towns have diversified their range of shops as major retailers have consolidated their operations in larger cities with wide catchment areas. This approach now needs to be replicated more widely as the recession brings further closures.
Business analyst Experian suggests that by December 15% of shops will be vacant, equivalent to some 135,000 units, and that small market towns will be worst affected.
The change taking place in these centres is quite profound. North Norfolk DC’s cabinet member for planning and economic development Clive Stockton (Lib Dem) warned when Woolworth’s closed that the chain had been “part of the genetic make-up of small towns for nearly 100 years”.
“Its loss is not just economic, it is psychological, and yet another blow to things we thought were stable, like post offices and the banks,” he added.
Town centres need to adapt to changing shopping patterns, says the BCSC report. The future for many smaller towns lies not in attracting more chain stores but in becoming centres for specialist or food shopping and local services.
Very large shopping centres have opened recently in Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester, and the large
multiples need to be represented in about only 50 such centres to reach the vast majority of shoppers. Smaller town centres have to offer something different, the BCSC concludes.
Town centre planning consultant Doug Wheeler, of Douglas Wheeler Associates, who has helped several councils to reposition their town centres, says they must play to their strengths.
The first step should be to get the retailers together, he says. “In many towns, there is no retailers’ association, and the businesses are not working with the regeneration agencies, local authorities or local communities.”
He urges retailers to work alongside councils, local residents, housing associations, young people and schools to help identify the weaknesses and strengths in their town.
But Mr Wheeler says any resulting plan should ideally be implemented at arm’s-length from the local authority.
He points to the Kendal Futures initiative, which seeks new uses for vacant sites and shops in the Cumbrian town.
This is taking on a range of projects that include retailer training, promoting a ‘business incubator centre’ on a vacant site and measures such as better car parking to improve the retailing environment.
In some towns, a common theme might emerge that could serve as a brand with which to promote it. Some 30% of people in Scotland live in smaller towns and there have been a series of initiatives to give them a clear branding.
For example, Castle Douglas, in Dumfries & Galloway, has branded itself a ‘food town’ because of the extensive fresh food available there.
Steve Groome, co-ordinator of the Food Town initiative, which is funded by the council and private contributions, says that in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 grants became available to support the local economy.
This prompted the town, which has few multiple stores but more than 50 independent ones, many of them food outlets, to get retailers together. Since 2004 they have organised promotional events, including produce markets and food demonstrations in the square.
Castle Douglas has now collaborated with nearby Wigtown — the ‘book town’ — and Kirkcudbright — the ‘art town’ — to create a tourist destination in which they hope visitors will want to stay,
In the difficult economic climate the Scottish government has established a £60m fund to support its smaller town centres, which could spur on other ‘destination’ towns. The three towns hope that their venture will receive support from this.
Launching a revival plan for town centres in England in April, the then communities secretary Hazel Blears emphasised that “town centres are the heartbeat of every community and businesses are the foundation so it is vital that they remain vibrant places for people to meet and shop throughout the downturn”.
A £3m initiative was set up to promote the temporary reuse of vacant shops for non-profit purposes, such as art galleries or youth centres. This fund could be used strategically to refashion parts of towns that are particularly flagging.
Bill Boler, director of Business in the Community’s under-served markets initiative, is concerned that any projects should be part of an overall strategy.
He warns councils against branding their towns too distinctly. He says it is important for towns to have retailers and facilities that will attract a broad range of customers, and that councils should encourage such commercial diversity.
Mr Boler, who oversaw the regeneration of Harlem in New York as part of a local authority initiative, says councils “need to understand that large retailers can drive out the smaller ones and retail impact studies should be used to avoid this”.
He also emphasises that councils need to have good information about how the retailers in their town centres are doing so that action can be taken before any crisis.
The food sector is one of the bright spots in the recession, and the BCSC report urges councils to identify sites where large food retailers can locate so as to create a critical mass of customers that will also help to support smaller shops.
This approach is being tried in Halesowen and in West Bromwich in the West Midlands, where major food stores are moving into town. If properly planned, the stores can act as a magnet for specialist retailers, says the report.
Many towns have town centre managers, but they are not in a position to give the necessary strategic direction, according to the Association of Town Centre Management’s chief executive Simon Quin. “Co-operation is required right across the local authority involving planning and estates departments as well as leisure and street management.”
He adds that a minority of progressive towns are actively identifying gaps in their range of shops and seeking to attract retailers to fill these.
The recession has raised some difficult questions for these smaller town centres. But if they find their niche, offer a broad range of retail and have effective town centre management systems, they could emerge stronger and better able to weather future downturns.