Struggling East Anglian towns must fight for survival of their own high streets
PUBLISHED: 19:03 11 July 2019 | UPDATED: 19:03 11 July 2019
Archant Norfolk 2015
Iain Dale says it's no good towns moaning about their declining high streets, they need to find their own way of bringing back trade and success
The state of our local town centres has been an issue climbing up the political agenda over the last decade. For years now, local residents in both our big towns and smaller market towns have been concerned by the number of empty shops, the rising number of charity and betting shops and the homogenisation of our town and city centres.
A few days ago, the government announced the winning bids for money from its Future High Street Fund, which will enable towns all over the country to receive initial seed funding of £150,000 to develop a high street regeneration and transformation strategy. The successful bidders will eventually receive multi-million pound funding to complete the projects out of a total pot of £675 million.
Fifty-one local council areas have been chosen by the Department of Communities and Local Government to go through to the next round of bidding. Two of them are in Norfolk (Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn) but there are none from Suffolk or Essex. I'll leave residents of those two counties to assess how fair that decision is, but readers across the region will surely be well aware of the failings of Ipswich town centre. The town's MP Sandy Martin is less than gruntled that Ipswich has been ignored and understandably so. He commented: "There are towns here much bigger than Ipswich that have got much more vibrant town centres. There doesn't seem to be any logic behind not including Ipswich." He's going to take the issue up with ministers. It's always a little opaque as to how these decisions are made and how much political input there is from ministers.
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The list of 51 council areas is heavily tilted towards the north, which some will say is understandable given the north-south divide, but you'd hope the winning bids were picked entirely on merit, rather than through some sort of geographical political correctness.
There will be plenty of other MPs and in the region who might feel somewhat aggrieved too, but in the end, if you have a bidding process there will always be winners and losers.
Frankly, we all need to get real about our town centres. We ourselves are the part of the reason why our town centres have fallen in popularity. If we actually used our town centre shops rather than buy online, we wouldn't be experiencing these problems. But it's also the fault of the shops themselves. The retail sector has failed to innovate and keep up with the demands of their customers.
Some towns have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive to shoppers, and they give their residents an all-round good experience. They've got the mix right between destination shops, regular chains, coffee shops and restaurants and just as important, good parking facilities. Holt, in North Norfolk, is a good example of this. You go to Holt and you enjoy the experience. It has a unique atmosphere and when you leave, you want to come back soon. However, 18 miles along the A149 in North Walsham, things are rather different. It has a beautiful town centre yet despite money being spent it has been to little avail. I live only a few miles away, but how often to I ever shop in North Walsham town centre? Hardly ever. Most of the good shops have closed. Last time I went it was full of empty shops and charity shops. It shouldn't be this way, given the population of North Walsham is nearly four times that of Holt. It could of course be that the presence of a Waitrose and Sainsbury's has sucked the life out of the centre.
In the next 10 years, planning rules are going to have to change if our town centres are to survive. Retail business rates need lowering too. But if anyone thinks there is a silver bullet solution, they're deluding themselves. In the end every town has got to look itself in the mirror and ask some deeply searching questions, and then try to come up with innovative, niche solutions.
Email Iain at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @iaindale