20 Aug 2013

Can the British high street reinvent itself?

As #c4newspopup tours Britain this week, Siobhan Kennedy travels to Swindon – once the heart of Britain’s industrial production with a thriving local economy – to find out how its high street is faring now.

My conversation with the taxi driver who took me from Swindon train station to the centre of town told me all I needed to know.

He was probably a man in his 60s, had lived in Swindon all his life and yet hadn’t been on its high street for over five years.

How is that possible? I asked him.


“Easy,” he said, “Last Christmas I did all my shopping in the Tesco superstore out of town. There’s nothing on the high street for me, it’s mostly charity shops now. I don’t ever need to go there.”

A walk down Swindon high street and the sorry tale of Britain’s town centres unfolds before your eyes.

Years of neglect compounded by the financial crash of 2008 have left this place devoid of many big name retailers or quirky independents.

Staples disappear

Where brand names once stood, there’s now the ever-depressing mix of charity shops and pawnbrokers. Making matters worse is the growth of big out of town retailers and, of course, the internet.

Throw in too many roundabouts, not enough local parking and a complicated one-way system and you have a big problem.

The government hasn’t helped either. Business rates have remained at levels that presuppose the recession never happened and its attempt to rejuvenate rundown town centres via the “retail guru” Mary Portas have demonstrably failed.

The question is, as Britain’s economy gradually hauls itself back to growth, will high streets like Swindon be able to reinvent themselves too? If the recent British Retail Consortium data is to be believed, things are looking up. The number of vacant shops in our town centres has fallen while the percentage of shoppers is up.

Mark Dempsey, a Labour Councillor in Swindon, summed up the town’s problems like this: “We’ve seen some of the staples like Woolworths, Jessops, HMV disappear and they’ve been replaced by vacant shop units, by payday lenders and by betting shops and so a once vibrant town centre is really struggling.”

He’s right. A walk down the high street and you see boarded up shop fronts.

Sure, the retail staples are there: M&S, Debenhams, WHSmith, Primark. But unusually for a town centre there are very few other brands.

No Zara, Hobbs, Monsoon, Cargo. Nothing vaguely upmarket. There isn’t a single restaurant. The further down you go, the worse it gets.

Pubs and seedy clubs replace what shops were once there.

‘Different clientele’

It’s here we met a local chip shop owner who’s been on the high street for 13 years. In the last six months, he says three betting offices and four pawnbrokers have opened up around him.

“So that just tells you how things are changing. Well, then you’re going to get a different clientele completely.”

He used to close his doors at midnight but gradually, as demand has fallen, it’s got earlier and earlier.

“Now I could shut my doors at five and not open on Sundays. That’s how bad it’s really got.”

He says he’s tried talking to the council. Little fixes would help. Like the first hour free parking, to encourage people to pop into town. But they’re not listening, he says.

Hard to believe his shop is just a stone’s throw from the original site of the Great Western Railway Company.

Swindon was once the heart of industrial production, a thriving economy. The high street was originally founded to connect the workers to the old centre at the top of town. But that proud history seems all but forgotten.

Except at The Brunel shopping centre, named after the railway’s founder Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

But it’s hardly a tribute to him -18 months ago the centre went bust after the banks pulled the plug on its owners.

Austerity bites

There is some life here, though lots of empty units too. The new boss, Bernard Ferris, says consumers are still reeling from austerity but insists the government isn’t doing enough to help.

He said: “How ironic is it that the government are spending so many millions of pounds in trying to rejuvenate our towns and city centres but with the other hand they’re actually taking back what are in anybody’s terms very unfair and inflated levels of business rates at this moment in time.”

Swindon is one of half a dozen shopping centres his business runs in Britain and he says the problems here are no different to anywhere else. The trick is to offer incentives to get new businesses in.

People like Marianne. The centre did her a deal to open her vintage clothing store for six months on reduced rent and rates.

“Because I have traded here before they have actually given me a better deal,” she said. “But otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to even think of coming in here. And I know new traders gong out there fresh. They’re not going to make it.”

Green shoots

But for all the doom and gloom, there is some light on the horizon here. Some here told me the green shoots of recovery are starting to appear. And with that, former regeneration projects that were once shelved have now been restarted.

Projects like Regent Circus at the top of town will bring a cinema, supermarket, and much-needed restaurants where currently there are none.

And at the other end of town, there’s a plan to connect the popular designer outlet to the rest of the high street.

It seems that sense of optimism is starting to rub off.

David Grieves has been working at Specsavers since it opened here 28 years ago. He says things have been tough but he’s convinced the bad times are behind them. “I think it’s different this time. We’ve seen some failings in the past but I’m optimistic this time things will improve. There’s a new development up the road which will be bringing more people along in front of this shop.”

That’s what he hopes. That’s what everyone here hopes. They’re desperate for a town centre the whole family can have a day out in.

And it seems they have reason to be hopeful. If the investment that’s started here is anything to go by, Swindon’s past could be soon be reflected in a brighter future.

Follow Siobhan Kennedy on Twitter @siobhankennedy4

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