TRANSFORMING OUR HIGH STREETS - BRINGING POWER TO THE PEOPLE

There has been much debate over the future of the high street in North Wales in recent times, including within this column.

With the development of out of town centres and the growth of internet shopping, local stores have never been under so much pressure to improve the consumer experience so to attract greater numbers of local shoppers.

Indeed, there needs to be greater effort on developing an enjoyable experience for shoppers to entice them away from supermarkets and internet sites to their local high streets.

Therefore, the publication of a new report from the Policy Exchange should be one that will be discussed by politicians and policymakers across the region.

Published last month, “21st Century Retail Policy: Quality, choice, experience and convenience”, is a fascinating and thought provoking analysis that goes beyond the normal conventions regarding retail developments and looks to provide radical solutions which could transform and revitalise shopping areas.

Perhaps one of the most contentious is a proposal that local authorities, where local retailers are in favour, should lose power over the management of high streets and that the management of these areas should be shifted to Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) with additional powers.

This would include having responsibility for cleaning, car parking and side road pedestrianisation.

More relevantly, such BIDs would have direct control over most planning both for new development and change of use. However, the council would retain power for major reconstruction and rebuilding, although these would have to be formally approved by the BID.

The BIDs could also place restrictions on the type of businesses within the area (e.g. charity shops or takeaways) and have the power, where there continue to be empty shops, to sanction a change of use into office or homes.

I am sure that the introduction of such bodies would be controversial in the first place but they could, if managed properly, transform the fortunes of high streets across North Wales.

A recent survey for YouGov showed that the three top concerns of shoppers are  the right mix of shops, car access and parking, and lavatory facilities. They also do not care whether a location is in or out of town.

Therefore, as the report demonstrates, you can imagine a BID looking carefully at how the whole consumer experience could be enhanced and responding accordingly, rather than merely keeping to normal planning regulations.

For example, pedestrianising a side street off the main shopping area could make this attractive for a couple of restaurants to move into, whilst a small number of offices created in a specific section of the high street could result in higher footfall for the businesses because of their central location.

The number of charity shops and takeaways could be limited to one per street whilst a couple of the empty shops would be permitted to be transformed into homes to ensure people live within those areas. The BID could also employ a part time caretaker who would ensure the streets are kept clean and deals immediately with any anti-social behaviour that may arise.

Creating such an environment would then bring more businesses into the area, especially those that would capitalise on increased footfall, such as coffee shops. This would create a continuous cycle of renewal and regeneration that would enhance the whole area.

Of course, where there are already well run high streets managed efficiently by local councils, then they should be left alone to develop as they are. However, the people who know best about developing their local areas are those who actually run the shops there.

It would be a massive step forward to be able to give them direct control over their own destinies and, more importantly, help them to revitalise those high streets which can be the heart of the shopping experience within our communities once again.

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