How can you go from ghost town to boom town? We speak to those that have reinvented their high street to find out how they did it.
The high street is in crisis. In 2018, 14 shops closed every day as retailers including Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld collapsed and others including New Look, Marks & Spencer, Carpetright and Mothercare shuttered stores.
And the indie sector has not fared much better. According to data from the British Independent Retailers Association and the Local Data Company, there was a record number of indie shop closures last year, with a net decline of 1,554 independent retailers in the first half of 2018 alone, compared with 762 shops a year earlier.
We’re all worried about the future of the high street – government, retailers and shoppers alike. In December, the government opened the Future High Streets Fund, asking local towns to make a bid for a share of £675m to transform their high streets.
But transforming an ailing high street, while unforgiving trading conditions are leading many big businesses to shut up shop, is a Herculean task.
Yet it’s not impossible. Not long ago, Altrincham was referred to as a ghost town. Back in 2010, the Greater Manchester area was found to have England’s emptiest high street as more than 30% of its shops stood empty.
However, last November, Altrincham was crowned as the best high street in the country in the Great British High Street awards, run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
So, how did it go about this dramatic turnaround?
The transformation of Altrincham was very much driven by the community. This is something that Sir John Timpson recommended in his High Street Report, published in December. In fact, Altrincham was one of the areas that Timpson took inspiration from while writing his review.
Angela Stone from Altrincham Partnership, which was the forerunner to the town’s Business Improvement District (BID) Altrincham Unlimited, first got involved a decade ago, around the time Altrincham was burdened by the ghost town label.
She says the opening of the Trafford Centre, just seven miles away, was the catalyst for the town’s decline.
A lot of effort has been put into promoting local businesses and creating community events in Altrincham
“A lot of our bigger companies left because they opened places there. We lost companies like Debenhams and Body Shop,” she says.
Herself and other local traders and community leaders got together to help breathe new life into the town centre.
So, what did they do? Stone says a lot of effort has been put into promoting local businesses and creating community events in the town centre to get people out onto the high street.
This ranges from ‘Veg Out’, an initiative to get people to sample local eateries, to indie shopping event Shoptober, to the annual music festival Goose Green, now in its fifth year, which attracts more than 8,000 people.
Stone says these events “remind people that we do have a strong retail offer and encourages them to stay and sample it”.
Crucially that group of local people was given backing – and funding – from Trafford Council. This was further bolstered by the creation of the BID in 2016, which has helped to grow the events it puts on.
A key element of Altrincham’s transformation has been the community taking control of town centre planning.
Altrincham’s Neighbourhood Plan Forum, which comprise local businesses and community groups, developed a plan that dictates what happens in terms of planning in the town centre. This plan has been voted through by residents and businesses so it is now enforceable by law for the next 30 years.
Stone sits on the forum, which tackles issues such as parking.
“We’ve got a development going on starting this year to double the amount of space available in our council carparks”
Angela Stone, Altrincham Partnership
“We felt as though we didn’t have enough parking in the town centre,” says Stone. “We’ve got a development going on starting this year to double the amount of space available in our council carparks.”
Another initiative that the Neighbourhood Plan Forum is keen to push forward is turning the upstairs of retail units into residential. “It will make the ground floor units more affordable for smaller businesses,” says Stone.
Making it easier for smaller businesses to thrive on the high street has been a priority for Altrincham. One initiative that has proven successful is a loan scheme for small businesses to make units usable.
Trafford Council set up this initiative in Altrincham but has since rolled it out across the entire borough. Stone says the benefit of the scheme is that it is “self-funding” and as businesses pay the money back, others can dip into it.
Reinventing the high street
Altrincham town centre has undergone much change during the past decade and retail plays a less prominent role. The high street now hosts two gyms, an Everyman cinema and a bustling food market, which houses a plethora of eateries and a 180-seater dining area.
This has attracted more casual dining venues into the area such as Nando’s.
Stone says it is important for high streets and town centres to make themselves a destination for something other than retail.
“We very much became somewhere that people want to come to eat out. It’s about finding something that’s different about your area.”
Despite Altrincham’s recent crowning as high street of the year, it is not resting on its laurels, particularly given the volatile conditions on the high street.
“I’m always conscious that things can change quite quickly and you never know what’s around the corner,” says Stone. “You’ve got to look to what’s coming next. A big company might go under and that can have a massive impact.”
Taking stock in Stockton
It was the collapse of a big retailer that forced leaders at Stockton Borough Council to take action to transform its high street.
Neil Schneider, chief executive of the council, says: “The closure of Woolworths was a pivotal moment. It forced us to rethink things.”
Schneider admits that Stockton had been struggling for a while before Woolworths, a big anchor tenant in the city centre, hit the buffers. Like Altrincham, the success of a big retail park nearby – Teesside Retail Park – had wooed away big businesses.
“We had this market town, with a proud history of our market offer. What are we doing trying to compete with retail parks? We need a complementary offer, not the same offer”
Neil Schneider, Stockton Borough Council
Rather than try to compete with Teesside, Schneider decided to focus on what was different about Stockton town centre.
“We had this market town, with a proud history of our market offer. What are we doing trying to compete with retail parks? We need a complementary offer, not the same offer.
“We needed to look backwards, to our soul, history and heritage, and reinvent ourselves. We’re a welcoming place with a sense of spirit and entertainment, we’re a market town. We’ve got to position ourselves there.”
The council set about reinventing Stockton as a kind of outdoor community centre, according to Schneider, making it a stage for events, specialist and traditional markets, with pleasant, family-friendly public spaces.
“We wanted to create a town centre that people might choose to visit for reasons other than just shopping, especially as there’s a very successful retail park jam-packed with big names just 10 minutes away,” he says.
The council invested in its market, known locally as ‘The Queen of the North’, and made it central to its high street. The market, which runs on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and has more than 100 independent stalls, brings people to the heart of Stockton.
Stockton also committed to bringing new businesses to the town centre. At the council-supported Enterprise Arcade at the Fountain Shopping Mall, young businesses can take space for as little as £10 a day to try out their format.
Schneider describes the scheme as a “grow our own” and says the next generation of independent traders is coming through the Enterprise Arcade. Already 14 former tenants have moved into more prominent units in the town centre.
The council has also offered grants of up to £5,000 to help businesses refurbish vacant units.
“Stockton is in better shape and is cared for; however, the tough high street isn’t making this easy”
Graham Soult, CannyInsights.com
Jason Maxwell, manager of Stockton’s BID, which was set up in 2015, says indies have helped to give Stockton town centre a point of difference from Teesside Retail Park.
The council has also invested in the public realm. North East native, retail consultant and founder of CannyInsights.com, Graham Soult, says: “They basically ripped up the street space and started again in terms of public realm. They rejigged the market and put a big fountain in the middle of it.”
It also invested in The Stockton Flyer, a flying train sculpture, which rises whistling from its plinth at 1pm every day in a cloud of steam.
Soult says an attractive, well-maintained public space with attractions is key to bring people to their high streets and town centres.
Like Altrincham, Stockton also focused on putting on events to get people out on the high street. Community carnivals, Diwali-inspired festivals and giant tea parties have been hosted, as well as some grand-scale events.
The Stockton International Riverside Festival attracts up to 500,000 people and the town will also host the City Games this year, which will be broadcast live on BBC One.
Thriving night-time economy
While Altrincham’s reinvention centred on its foodie credentials, Stockton has played on its reputation as a night-time destination.
To build on that, the council is bringing back to life the Globe Theatre, a dramatic art deco building that will host live music and comedy when it opens next year.
This means Stockton will have three live music venues.
Hotel group Hilton has also built a new Hampton Inn in Stockton to help bring more visitors to the town centre.
A proactive council
A proactive council has been critical to Stockton’s turnaround, says Soult. “The council has got itself into gear,” he says.
“I’m unapologetic in taking a lead in place-shaping,” says Schneider. “The local authority has to invest and not expect a financial return.”
So far, more than £35m has been spent on regenerating Stockton – and Schneider intends to invest more. He says Stockton Council is approved to borrow £35m for strategic acquisitions and he sees the potential to snap up land for redevelopment.
However, he says the council cannot lead high street regeneration alone and insists buy-in is needed from the entire community, including local businesses and residents.
Schneider advises town centres to first and foremost come up with a concrete plan as to how to rejuvenate their high street.
”You can’t just replicate and clone what other high streets have done. You’ve got to find your heart and soul,” he says. “And when you have a good plan, it’s easy to attract funding.”
Stockton has secured funding from organisations such as Heritage Lottery, the Arts Council and Sports England, says Schneider.
Unprecedented change on the high street
Despite encouraging signs – in 2017, Stockton was the only town centre in the North East to have more shop openings than closures, according to data from the Local Data Company – Stockton is not out of the woods yet, says Maxwell, who admits that footfall is still down year on year.
Soult says: “It’s in better shape and is cared for; however, the tough high street isn’t making this easy. It hasn’t prevented M&S, Topshop and New Look from leaving.
“Finding new occupants for those big units is very hard, if not impossible.”
Schneider admits that making such investment during such an unprecedented period of change in retail has proved challenging.
“People generally still equate a town centre’s success with the number of big name shops it has, so naturally, we’ve had criticisms along the lines of ‘all that money spent on the town centre yet the shops are closing’.
“Our response to that has been to point out that we saw all this coming, and it’s precisely why we’ve been shifting the town’s emphasis away from shops and towards our growing events and leisure offer.”
However, like many other town centres, Schneider admits Stockton has too many shop units and not enough retailers to fill them.
“There’s still work to be done, no doubt about that. But I’d rather be in the position we’re in than that of a lot of other places where that journey [to adjust to the new retail reality] has yet to begin.”
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