‘People power’ plan to revive Norfolk and Suffolk market towns

A rallying call has been issued for local people to help revitalise struggling high streets and transform clone towns into unique places to visit.

A plan to help turn around the fortunes of market towns will be published today, which says that 'people power' will provide the key to stimulating growth and making town centres thrive.

Suffolk-based Action for Market Towns says that the coalition government's Localism Bill will enable local residents and businesspeople to change their high streets for the better by developing community-led plans.

The new report, entitled 21st Century Town Centres, and which aims to encourage communities to turn the economic crisis into an opportunity, was last night welcomed by Norfolk academics and business experts.

Officials from Action for Market Towns, which holds its annual convention today, have called on television's 'Queen of Shops' Mary Portas to take on board their vision as part of her government-commissioned review to regenerate Britain's high streets.

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The national charity, which is based in Bury St Edmunds, says that developing local leadership in market towns will help achieve lasting change. The report calls on people to help their town by understanding it and its role within the hierarchy of local centres, learn from award-winning towns, and develop a plan of action.

Alison Eardley, Action for Market Town's policy manager, said people needed to think more 'radically and intelligently' if market towns were to survive and thrive. She added that town centres were civic spaces and everyone needed to play a part in supporting them.

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The charity is also working with partners to develop High Street UK, a US-inspired model for resident-led town centre regeneration, and My Card, a new loyalty card system that aims to support high street and independent stores to compete against supermarket reward schemes.

Paul Dobson, head of the University of East Anglia-based Norwich Business School, said getting local people involved was important, but some of the new report was 'stating the obvious'.

He added that shoppers needed to change their habits by supporting local stores rather than going online or to out of town centres.

'You need buy-in from the local community and you really need a strong champion who will really drive it and muster support and make sure everyone is facing the right way. There has to be a spark to take it from the problem to the solution,' he said.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said the high cost of fuel meant that many shoppers were beginning to rediscover their local town centres. She added that thriving towns needed to share best practice with neighbours that were not doing so well.

'They are shopping locally and discovering what is there and the local shops are understanding the importance of customer service because that is where the smaller, more independent stores win. Businesses are very involved in their communities and care passionately about their local area, but may be they need to more visible in their support,' she said.

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