Wiltshire Publications

Issue 489 – Halting the decline of the High Street

THE Government has asked retail guru Mary Portas, of TV’s ‘Mary Queen of Shops’ and ‘Secret Shopper’ fame, to undertake a review aimed at halting “the decline of the high street” in England.

With Westbury’s traders facing difficulties including the recession, the recent scrapping of free parking and competition from the internet, White Horse News asked local figures on their views of how the town’s high street can be saved.
Car parking charges have proved to be controversial, with free parking scrapped entirely in April this year. Before last July, shoppers in Westbury enjoyed two hours’ free parking in the town. Free parking was then reduced to one hour before being scrapped completely.
The town council has protested that a small market town such as Westbury faces the same parking charges as larger and more affluent towns such as Warminster and Marlborough.
Mayor of Westbury, cllr David Windess said, “Adding £1.20 for two hours parking is not in the best interests of the town, we should be encouraging people to use local shops not driving them away.” 
David Jenkins, president of the Westbury Chamber of Commerce added, “Early findings through discussions with shopkeepers is confirming that they are losing business due to the increased car parking charges.”
David Jenkins also stressed the importance of Westbury being able to attract new businesses to the town. He said, “In any regeneration plan, the ability for the town to attract new business is important. A mixture of additional shops offering different products and services would help to generate interest.
“In this current economical climate this is difficult, however if the vacant shops in the town were taken up by businesses, this would make the town look more attractive. There is an additional benefit concerning this aspect of regeneration in that if more businesses came into the town then it will help to create additional employment.”
However cllr Sue Ezra, chair of the town centre’s viability working group on the town council, points out that any business needs the support of local people to survive. “You cannot just make people open a shop in a town,” she said. “You can give them some rate-free time and reduced rent but if people don’t use it, it will close. It just depends on your customers and your footfall.”
Making the town centre a place where people enjoy shopping and spending time is an important issue for cllr David Windess, who also agrees that having a variety of shops in the town is important.
“The key factors for having the town regenerated, is to have a variety of shops and markets in the town, not just for shopping but to be a place where people can meet and socialise in a variety of services and events.” he said.
David Jenkins said that annual events in the town such as the Christmas programme, the street fayre, annual music festival are successful and well supported and all play a part in the regeneration programme.
He added that making the town a more pleasant environment is important saying, “The physical appearance in some of the shopping areas are untidy, especially the buildings in the High Street. A clean up of these buildings would improve the appearance and make the area more appealing to the shopper.”
For Russell Hawker, town and Wiltshire councillor and a commercial property chartered surveyor, a big problem lies in the one-way system and brick rotunda.
He said, “The changes that took place in 1992 in High Street and Edward Street, which introduced the current one-way traffic system and the brick rotunda opposite the library, have been utterly disastrous overall for retail traders.
“The best guide to the strength of any retail centre is the rental value of the front part of the shops. Westbury High Street rents collapsed in the mid-90s to rock bottom levels at a time when other similar town centre rents were rising. Rents have barely risen at all since. No developer is going to come and invest in new properties for new businesses until these investment fundamentals are dramatically improved.”
On our facebook page, users have commented that Westbury’s town centre needs “life injecting into it”, “We’re desperate for some bigger shops, we have so little”, that Westbury needs “some shops – that are not second hand charity shops” and also ask if we can make more of local tourist attractions such as the White Horse to draw people into the town.
In her national report, Mary Portas will look at the problem of empty shops and how to prevent the growth of “clone towns” dominated by chainstores.
She says, “With town centre vacancy rates doubling over the last two years, the need to take action to save our high streets has never been starker.
“I am calling on businesses, local authorities and shoppers to contribute their ideas on how we can halt this decline in its tracks and create town centres that we can all be proud of.”
Mary Portas is due to present her findings to the Government in the autumn.

What do you think of Westbury’s high street shops? What do you think would boost their success and encourage new businesses? E-mail us at whitehorsenews@btconnect.com or leave your comments on our facebook or twitter pages. (www.twitter.com/whitehorsenews or search for us on facebook).