Our High Streets have to change. The migration of shoppers away from the town centre and on to the internet is well underway and no amount of effort on the part of high street shops is going to halt it.
There are a few exceptions that may still flourish, like Poundland – which holds a special position due to the fact that their low cost items would not fare so well through on-line sales when delivery costs are added on top. But for a large proportion of shops though, they can not match the vast selection of goods, stocked in all shapes and sizes, by on-line retailers who incur far lower overheads than their high street competitors paying hefty rents and business rates. Add to that the losses due to shoplifting and it appears to be game over.
So what is to become of our Town Centre?
Wednesday evening’s (November 7th) People’s Summit to discuss the future of Southend High St was packed out, with standing room only left. The meeting had been called by Milton ward’s two Labour councillors, Cheryl Nevin and Julian Ware-Lane, following Deputy Leader of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Cllr James Courtenay, convening a High Street Summit earlier in the year that excluded many stakeholders – not only opposition Councillors, but also Us, the people of Southend that use the high street.
The 60 plus attendees this time included many local residents, a few local business owners and retailers as well as Councillors from the Lib Dems, Independents and Labour. The Conservatives were notable by their absence and it was pity that the third ward councillor for Milton, Jonathon Garston, showed no interest in hearing what the local population had to say about their thoughts for the High Street in his ward.
At the meeting we were asked: What is good about Southend’s High Street and what we like; what we want to fix; what we want to see; and, what we don’t like.
To cover all the responses and suggestion here would run to a book rather than a blog post. What is clear is that we have to be innovative and not think of the high street as purely a shopping area, it needs to evolve as a community area and diversify. Rather than selling ‘things’ we should be looking at selling experiences. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this with Escape Rooms springing up around the town and eateries like Caddies in London Rd where you can combine a meal with a round of crazy golf. Another suggestion was an independent cinema to screen Art House, International and independent films that aren’t seen in the big multiplexes. I wonder if some of the larger empty stores, like BHS, could accommodate a indoor karting circuit – maybe over 2 floors? Other activities that have previously been pushed out onto industrial estate, such as ‘Kids Kingdom’ type play centres and trampoline parks could be an option if the rents were right. These would draw holiday makers up into the town, give them options when the weather was bad and also extend the season for visitor trade.
Using some of the space above shops to create flats is also probably beneficial for adding vitality and life to the area. Cleanliness, safety and the addition of some greenery to the area are also essential. Issues with Southend’s entrenched street community need resolving with compassion and not the heavy-handed approach often used.
We still have the perennial problem of parking and traffic congestion to deal with and I have written about my thoughts on this, proposing a park and ride in the Sadlers Farm area that utilises the train services in to southend.
Its over 50 years since the big supermarkets started building massive stores away from town centres and the high street’s obituary was prematurely written. They did help bring about the demise of many smaller local grocery stores, butchers, bakers and the like. Increasingly busy people opted for the convenience and savings offered by buying all their weekly food shopping in one ‘big hit’ at the out-of-town supermarket. Now that trade is going on-line too. Retail parks sprung up offering a wider choice of both retailers and goods, plus free car parking. But these are now too beginning to retreat, probably no better illustrated than the news that House of Fraser is to shut its store at Lakeside.
The high street survived then and I’m sure it will now. It’s our great opportunity to reinvent it once again and make it into an inviting, vibrant and thriving hub that everyone in the town can enjoy and benefit from.