Thursday, 8 November 2012

Can Small Towns Be Regenerated?

Regularly I receive emails about the regeneration of small town centres.  Earlier this year the Scottish Government set up the Town Centre Regeneration Fund, providing £60m of financial assistance, to support towns which apply for assistance.

Last week Newsnight Scotland reported on the under occupancy of shops and residential properties in Scotland's town centres and they reported Alloa (picture above) is getting it right with a lower rate of under occupancy than other similar towns in Scotland.  Keith Brown, the MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane was delighted. "This is a fantastic good news story about Alloa. Congratulations must be given to the Business Improvement district and Clackmannanshire Council for theIr Image Alloa project - which was funded by the Scottish Government - but also to local businesses and residents who have all worked hard to make a difference to Alloa.

Sounds all rather super duper doesn't it?  Well, one reader is well acquainted with Alloa and sent the following email:

Now this frightens me. To say that Alloa town centre is the one that others need to follow, does not say a lot for the chances of Scotland in the future, or the reporting abilities of Newsnight Scotland. There are five charity shops, four betting shops, four takeaways, Iceland, Farmfoods, Poundland, couple of restaurants, two banks, two shops selling mobile phone accessories and the occasional phone and two newsagents. There are a couple of pubs and the night club should be advertised as a promoter of fights. 

In addition to the above there is a pet shop, two travel shops, (were three but one closed), two hairdressers (the third closed), a gift shop and that's about it. Oh yes, in addition there is one hi -fi shop and one hardware store. I have lost count of the real businesses that have closed down, but most of the above are in places that recently closed. There used to be a big Co-op department store but that closed about five years ago.

The place is more like a down at heel Arabian bazaar than an on-the-way-up modern town. There have been a few one man shops that tried to make a go of it but they lasted about six months.

There are times you could fire a cannon down the high street and all you would do is frighten the two resident pigeons.

There may only be a few vacant premises but what the shops that are trading is telling us is not good. Second hand shops, betting shops and takeaways, do not indicate a vibrant economy - not to me anyway.

Tesco, Aldi ,Lidl, Asda, Morissons, are all outside the town centre; the public toilets were all closed by the previous labour council and the supermarkets asked to make their toilets available to the passing public. Only one toilet has been reopened by the current SNP council.

Maybe I see it differently to the PTB, but to my mind the place is run down. Most people commute to the big cities, they shop in the big cities and the only shopping locally is the supermarkets and small stuff they forgot to buy in the city. Alloa is just a dormitory now. I wonder what the rest of the country is like?

The most people I have seen in the town was last weekend, and that was when Alloa played Rangers and even then there were only a couple of dozen or so. Most new build is out of town, the latest is Kentucky Fried, and their new place is on the outskirts at the football ground. Plenty of room for parking you see.

I wonder what baseline reference Newsnight Scotland is using?

I could name two towns in Perthshire which sound rather like Alloa.  Until local planners stop permitting new businesses to set up on the outskirts of towns and refuse to acknowledge that High Street rents are too excessive for small businesses, then towns will slowly fall into further decline.  More and more people are buying online and the reason for part of that habit is convenience  and choice.

What's surprising is that I don't know anyone who has been asked about the future of their town centre.  Do the people want old town centres preserved?  Has anyone asked?  Maybe they prefer the new shopping centres with plenty of easy free parking and modern shops?


Hamish said...

It's not just the small towns.
St Andrews is infested with charity shops, and Edinburgh's High Street with proliferating branches of Mr Singh's tartan emporia. All credit to the latter for their entrepreneurial energy, but the disappearance of distinctive stores is depressing.
I don't think we can blame abyone but ourselves for this trend.

English Pensioner said...

Most high streets seem to be struggling. Even our local WH Smiths is having problems because the nearby Sainsburys sells all the cheaper items, and their book sales are hit by the likes of Amazon and e-readers. All the butchers, bakers, greengrocers, ironmongers and similar shops have gone since we moved here 30 years ago, we now have charity shops along with a disproportionate number of very expensive women's clothes shops and coffee shops. We also have M&S food and Waitrose. But I live on the edge of a moneyed area and there are clearly people who can afford the outrageous prices of these shops.

SadButMadLad said...

Times, they are a changing. We now have supermarkets which make the whole process of buying stuff more efficient and less time consuming. We now have retail parks where shops can have lots of space rather than having to squeeze into a small high street shop. And more recently we have internet shopping.

All the above have good things going for them such as free parking and easy access plus no travelling for internet shopping. And for the shop, rates are better as are rents.

High streets however hardly ever have free parking and even then spaces are limited. Shops are small. Rates are high. Rents are high.

Rather than try and keep the high street as it is, why not accept the change and acknowledge that the high street could be something where there are no shops.

Some towns might still have a high street if there is a demand (eg. tourist), but otherwise you can't make it happen if there is no demand. Planning by the state to try and make people do things never works.

Demetrius said...

It is all too late. What has gone is not likely to come back. And it is a disaster.

Joe Public said...

Demetrius said...

"......... And it is a disaster."

Hardly. It might be sad for shopkeepers & landlords, but consumers are voting with their wallets.

Even occupants on Retail Parks, each a clone of every other, are experiencing the winds of change - Internet Shopping.

subrosa said...

I suppose the big question is ' will High Streets ever return to pre-internet days' Hamish.

subrosa said...

Fortunately Perth still has a reasonable mix of shops EP, but Dundee is poor these days.

As you say it's the 'moneyed' folk who keep the likes of small shops - and big ones - in business.

The decline in Perth (some years ago now) happened when the cattle market was closed. That hit the town hard and the farmers' wives stopped coming to town on market days. Thankfully the town survived but shops had to adjust to a different clientele.

subrosa said...

You could be right SBML. The whole issue requires a radical rethink. Councils have brought the demise of High Streets about much quicker though, because they refuse to reduce rent and rates or provide free parking.

subrosa said...

It's sad Demetrius because the old-fashioned retailer will soon be no longer. Another excellent skill will bite the dust and youngsters will only be taught retails for the masses and not the discerning customer.

subrosa said...

Joe, I do lots of shopping online. It's not worth my while to travel to Dundee or Perth for a particular item when fuel and parking costs are usually way in excess of postage costs.

Comet's closure will affect lots of manufacturers though because so many white goods makers produce specific items for the likes of Currys and Comet. Just a tiny change to - say - a washing machine changes the model number and then makes it more difficult to do an online comparison.

Richard Thomas said...

I think you're slightly unfair to cite the planners for allowing out town shops. The supermarkets and retail parks employ barracks of clever lawyers to browbeat councils into submission and certainly, south when permission is refused, it is more than often overturned on appeal by the Government Inspector. If the Scottish Government changed the presumption to a refusal for out of town shops it would be a start but then who gave in to the last trump?

Apogee said...

Hi SR. Guess the people wanting to learn retailing will have to follow the lead of the NHS mentioned in the papers a few days ago who are sending, or thinking of sending surgeons to India to learn the trade,
to get round the restricted time problem caused by EU rules.
A couple of years in a Bazaar and retailers in training would soon learn the trade properly.

subrosa said...

Perhaps am being slightly unfair Richard, but from experience I would hesitate to say planners have local folk's wellbeing uppermost.

subrosa said...

The old styled retailer will soon be a thing of the past. Customer service too.

subrosa said...

The old styled retailer will soon be a thing of the past. Customer service too.

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