The health of the High Street

High Street, Oldham
ECONOMY: Retailers, residents and local councils must work together to redefine and nurture the High Street as the heart of the community.

LAST WEEK I attended the annual conference of the British Council of Shopping Centres in Liverpool.

This is the industry gathering which brings retailers, developers and agents together to discuss a range of issues affecting retail and town centres plus the key question on everyone’s mind: the role of town centres and how to breathe life back into the foundation of every community – our High Street.

Mary Portas was the key note speaker at the event and spoke in her usual direct way about the need for communities, retailers and local councils to work  together to redefine the High Street in their area.

There was clear frustration expressed about the pace of change with the Government and the lack of clarity about who now takes the mantle on following the Cabinet reshuffle.

Mary rightly pointed out that when times were good retailers, consumers (that’s me and you) and local councils all took the gain but didn’t think far enough ahead and take stock of the changing face of retail.

That included out-of-town developments, outlet villages, internet shopping…where did they all come from?

When all of us should have been planning for the High Street of the future cash was being raked in from rent, rates and parking charges – and consumers voted with their feet.

We all know that major stores like Debenhams, BHS and M&S to name a few are a major draw on High Streets, and we also know that whilst people want convenience, they also want an experience.

One thing alone won’t fix this.

If we removed all parking charges tomorrow people who don’t feel the range of shops exists still won’t come.

If we gave free stalls to all market traders that would go some way to helping, but if they still didn’t make money they would soon stop coming altogether.

And if we reduced all business rates we would only have to reduce the maintenance standard across the town centre environment, which would affect the experience people have. For all our faults, Oldham’s High Street is attractive and in the (rare) sunshine is a good place to spend time.

When Mary Portas researched the High Street and came up with 28 recommendations no one could argue that this was not a good start.

But as she herself would say, it also needs imagination and energy. Most importantly the High Street needs to be respected and nurtured as the heart of a community.

Let’s hope the Government moves quickly to implement the recommendations made: especially the restrictions on betting shops.

During the day at Liverpool I had prearranged meetings with developers and retailers (who for now must remain nameless) about how we can use confirmed developments like Hotel Future, Metrolink and the Old Town Hall as a catalyst for attracting major players into the town centre and Alexandra Retail Park.

Not only would this bring in new visitors it would also provide much-needed jobs for those most affected by the recession – young people and women who are in part-time work.

We had a major bonus recently when BHS agreed to set up in Oldham, and the shopfitters are already preparing that site for opening very soon.

I guarantee that as a Council we will continue to fight for Oldham and work hard to provide jobs and opportunities. Some really exciting projects are now coming to reality and investors can genuinely see that our Borough is a place worth looking at.

Everyone in Oldham has a responsibility to act as ambassadors for our Borough and for the High Street.

Whilst I do accept that some have witnessed decline and are angry/bitter/indifferent (delete as appropriate), it’s clearly time for us to move forward because – if the people of Oldham don’t believe we can be better tomorrow than we are today – why on earth should a private investor or retailer believe it?

As a Council we will do our bit and work with others to attract investment and create a town centre environment that people look forward to visiting. That means great shops, good restaurants and a family-friendly experience. We are also looking at potentially scrapping parking charges for up to two hours – but only if that’s part of a wider plan – and not just a knee jerk reaction.

None of this will be easy, of course.

It was hard enough to achieve progress and growth when times were good, let alone during the worse recession for generations, but I’m not willing to accept to be here simply managing decline.

The conference was a mixed experience; informative, depressing, uplifting but most of all confirmation that if we continue to do things the way we always have, then we can not expect a different outcome.

Finally, I’d like to invite you to attend our second 20:20 lecture on Thursday night this week.

’Business and the Community’ is the theme and our keynote speaker at this free event is Paul Walsh, the CEO of Diageo plc: the world’s biggest premier drinks company.

Paul is from Chadderton and was educated at Royton and Crompton school, and Oldham College.

He will talking about his own personal story and experiences that have taken him to the top of his profession.

There’ll be also an audience-led debate about the role of business in strengthening our communities –  and about how we encourage an entrepreneurial environment.

The 20:20 lecture is being held at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Oldham Council, West Street, Oldham, OL1 1QJ, Oldham, between 7 and 9pm on Thursday, September 20.

This free event is open to the public and places will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. If you wish to attend you can apply by sending an email to: marketing@oldham.gov.uk

Refreshments will also be provided and free parking is available.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

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