LETTERS: ‘How do we make the high street somewhere people want to go?’
- Credit: Nick Butcher
There are many good ideas from Peter Aldous' proposals to rejuvenate Lowestoft, but also I personally feel a bit of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted, particularly in relation to the parking charges.
Many years ago, before parking costs seem to get out of hand, I feel that many people used to treat a trip to town as a bit of an experience.
Yes they may have had to go in for something in particular but, having got there, they would park for a few hours, buy what they needed and then spend time browsing through other shops and stopping for lunch or a snack.
Indeed, my partner and her mum used to go in religiously every Saturday to look around and spend time together.
I believe the rapid increase in parking charges changed many people's attitude to a more blinkered approach whereby they go in, park and then put the minimum amount possible on the car that allows them to get to the shop they want, buy their item and then return to the car immediately to leave.
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While people were still going into town, they were no longer taking the time to browse.
The knock-on effect of this was less impulse buying in other shops, resulting in less trade and eventually shop closures.
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This then snowballed - as one closed less people needed to go in so even less shops were visitied then another closed and so on.
The unfortunate fact now is there is precious little left to encourage people to go into the town unless they want a coffee between visiting charity shops.
Unfortunately this is not particular to Lowestoft and is the case around the country.
Out of town shopping areas and supermarkets are certainly to blame together with on-line shopping. I myself am guilty.
I can remember several music shops which used to be fun to browse but if someone is looking for a CD for Christmas, it is far quicker to select it on Amazon than take hours physically going into town.
Unfortunately, technology has severely affected this industry as there is no longer any need to own the physical item when it can be downloaded or streamed.
Reducing the parking fees (and I must add re-introducing free Disabled Parking) is certainly a good thing but this will not help much if there is nothing to see.
There are now so few shops of interest offering anything different to that which can be bought out of town in retail parks.
The traffic system (that in my opinion was not changed for the better at the last overhaul) could be improved and hopefully the third crossing will make a difference - living south of the water this is a major factor as you never quite know how long the journey will take either over the bridge or negotiating the rail closures in Oulton Broad.
Quite frankly you just don't want to do it unless you really have to.
That said, how do we make the high street somewhere that people want to go?
The re-introducton of the Triangle market could be good but for me it is the heart of the town that needs the attractions as I believe that many people either go to the town centre or the upper high street, rarely both.
Although online shopping is easy and supermarkets etc are convenient, I still believe that many people would still prefer to physically see some items or receive specialist advice when making purchases.
The problem is that many large companies have already pulled out of the town and will not likely return until they see some potential.
We have to wonder who will be next to pull out, Marks and Spencer, WH Smith? Surely they will not remain open if trade continues to decline.
While we do not have the undercover facilities of the major centres such as Chapelfield, we do have a pedestrianised area suitable for shopping.
When you visit such centres, there is a good mix of "the big boys" and also diverse shops that encourage interest and make you feel like you want to go in and look around.
I think we need to try and start from scratch and encourage such shops to give Lowestoft a go but how do we do it?
In short, there is no quick answer but I personally would look hard at business rates.
No-one is going to commit to a project with a premises if they are scared of being crippled by rates.
Financially this may be tricky but I would like to see a High Street start up scheme with masssively reduced rates for a new business for a couple of years or only minimal increases.
Advertise Lowestoft as the lowest initial business rates in the country or something and try and get people interested.
If we could do this and a few started maybe more would follow suit and, combined with the more attractive parking rates, people may find Lowestoft worth visiting again and start to rebuild the economy.
We also have tourism as major factor and in the summer months it would be good if tourists felt they wanted to come into town.
I am not suggesting we replicate Great Yarmouth's Regent Road but this is an area usually teaming with tourists due to the "holiday" businesses, gift shops, rock factory, glass blowing etc.
Maybe the old Westgate site could be an indoor market. Do we have room to have market stalls along London Road North? We do it when we have the cultural markets so why not more frequently for the residents and toursits?
Although high streets are struggling, I think town centres still do quite well on market days.
Cheap pitch fees and reduced business rates may just encourage business owners to give it a go.
I realise the thought of reduced rates would potentially frighten the living daylights out of the council but isn't it better to receive lower rates for occupied premises rather than nothing for empty buildings?
I certainly applaud Peter for his ideas and what he is trying to achieve and I hope we can stop the decline and hopefully rejuvenate our town.