Boston Borough Council leader Peter Bedford writes about the health of our high street...
Concerns have been raised about our town centre. We have to consider what is happening for traditional town centre retailing. The internet and fast-changing shopping habits have transformed how we shop. So there is no way the traditional town centre or high street can expect to be able to stay exactly as it always has been.
Centres these days need to be able to offer something new and different - they can’t necessarily simply stay as retail centres. And in many respects the independent retailer/business has perhaps more resilience and flexibility to meet these new challenges than the national retailer/chain store which is why, maybe, Boston continues to buck the trend of the more significant shop closures we see in other towns and cities. Morecambe, for instance, has 30 per cent of its shops boarded up – that is not Boston and we should be celebrating that fact.
We also need destinations, not necessarily shops. We need to create a magnet for consumers. A decline of traditional shops may be inevitable as more people look to town centres for their leisure, community and evening economy, eating and drinking needs. And as part of such decline the gaps that occur require to be filled, but maybe not by just new/more shops – I don’t think our high streets can’t be saved on the assumption that they will remain as anchor points for retail.
Boston has performed pretty well compared to many and continues to do so, with its vibrant Saturday and Wednesday market and Thursday craft market, all organised and managed by the borough council.
In terms of vacant retail units and footfall generally, each year we count ground floor units within the general business area where they have a display window and are actually vacant on 31st March each year. We do not include properties that are for sale or rent as that involves too much speculation. Nationally the vacant percentage average appears to be about 13.9%, and in Boston we have (March 31 2014) 13.6%, so about the same. This involves 36 identified vacant shops out of a total available 265 units (A1 authorised uses).
Some units have changed to other non-retail uses and no longer feature in our survey, but perhaps that also shows how well our planning policies and processes facilitate such change. We have a pro-growth, flexible approach.
Footfall is 3% up compared to last year and compared to 2006-2009 levels is 14% up.
Our planners are open to a wide range of alternative uses, but at the end of the day it is the property owners, landlords and businesses themselves which must take the responsibility to make the needed changes and put in the investment.
The South East Lincolnshire Joint Planning Committee’s new retail study forecasts the need for new convenience (eg food/supermarkets) and new comparison (eg clothes, electrical goods etc ) shopping capacity up to 2031. Note the long time scale – this is not just this year, next year or even over ten years! For Boston – convenience goods 1,079m2 and for comparison 17,294 m2. The study also identifies that at 2013 Boston has 40,868 m2 net of such retail space which is 16,814 m2 LESS than in 2006. It must also be recognised that Boston’s population increased by almost 16% in 10 years (2001-2010) and the retail forecast takes us forward another 17 years.
Boston Borough Council and private suppliers also facilitate business by providing a wide range of car parks in a lot of locations. Car park provision and charging is always under review and will be again, to ensure the town centre remains viable and competitive.
* See pages 20-21 for our retail feature and more from Coun Bedford.