My first column for the Torbay Times was published this week and covered my thoughts on the future for our local high streets:
The future of our town centres is a regular subject of doorstep debate.
In the past High Streets thrived on the basis that customers could not realistically go elsewhere. Yet with a seemingly endless selection of goods now available for instant purchase online, some argue that decline is terminal, a view I strongly disagree with.
Our town centres will in future more reflect the bay’s tourist industry, being destinations which entertain as much as serve, customers with a mixture of retail and entertainment offers. The Great Gorillas Trail mixed social media use with encouraging actual visits, whilst other initiatives like the Cream Tea Trail and Scone Off (both arranged by John of Dot’s Pantry), along with the Torbay Family Market set up by Suzannah Jones, a working Mum, show what small businesses can do to make their town centre a destination. The Council decision to introduce a £50 annual off peak car park permit for residents is also a step in the right direction.
There are decisions to be made around the future size and shape of Torquay Town Centre, in particular what former shopping areas can be released for conversion to other uses that support those which remain. My pet project would be moving Torquay’s cinema into a prominent location in Castle Circus as part of making Union St/Fleet St an attraction for retail in the day and family entertainment at night, rather than witnessing its deterioration.
At a national level there is a need to review the impact of Business Rates valuations that heavily penalise High Streets. The empty shops in Union St owe as much to their rating valuation as they do any planning or parking policies. Even worse the structure of rates means small traders in the town centre can end up paying a heavier bill per square foot than the large supermarket on the edge of town. Equity is needed.
The benefit to seeing another supermarket in Torquay Town Centre is the funding that comes with a planning application to do some visual enhancements to the Castle Circus area, and changing the traffic flow too. But it alone won’t bring the footfall required to help the Town survive.
There is a positive future for our town centres, but a changing role to the one they served in the past. I am so determined to support our high street that I am planning to take over an empty shop soon and make my presence felt on its doorstep.