PART II: What's next for our town centres – local business leaders react
See Part I of this story here
Creating the conditions for towns to thrive
Cllr Matt Jennings, tourism and economic development Portfolio, Stratford District Council
High Street retailing across the UK has been in decline since the 2008 financial crisis and Stratford-upon-Avon has been no different.
The pandemic has rapidly accelerated the decline. This is coupled with the fact that Stratford is dependent on tourism for the local economy and without foreign tourists we will be reliant on the domestic tourists for the foreseeable future. We are all going to go through a time of rapid change for which we must all adapt.
The district council does not own town centre real estate, we cannot control rent or lease agreements and we can’t control the way shop keepers do their business or what they sell.
So what can the district council do? In the short term we have paid out over £50m in grants in the last year to keep everything going. We are also exploring ways to streamline planning and licencing applications.
What can we do in the medium to long term? We can make the district a place where companies want to set up businesses, people want to live and where tourists want to visit. This is why we have started ambitious projects such as the Riverside, the Gateway and the Canal Quarter Regeneration.
The next few years are going to be really tough but if we all move forward in the same direction, we have a fighting chance.
There’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot through my meetings with businesses and with economic bodies around the country recently – cautious optimism.
It’s clear that not everyone will be rushing out when restrictions ease – some will understandably be more cautious – but our hope is over time, that confidence will gradually increase and the economy will begin to recover.
The message we’ve been giving out to businesses is not to stand still, because the firms that did the best during the pandemic were the ones that innovated quickly.
Ultimately, we cannot run employers’ businesses for them. Our role is to give them the support they need and create the conditions for good businesses to flourish.
Throughout this pandemic, our team has had to adapt to working from home and cope with a huge number of firms asking for help and advice. I think we’ve risen to the challenge, and our hard work has meant we’re now in a position where our economy should really start to recover.
To use that phrase again – we’re cautiously optimistic. Over the course of 2021 and beyond, we’re hopeful tourists will start coming back,
more people will live and work here, and businesses will all reap the benefits.
Independents to sow green shoots
Joseph Baconnet, Stratforward BID director
THIS time last year, just as the first lockdown came into being, a government report identified that the economy of Stratford would be among the worst affected in the whole country because of its reliance on the sectors that were going to be most damaged – hospitality, manufacturing and tourism.
So, although the sight of dozens of empty shops in our town centre is both shocking and depressing, it is perhaps not surprising. And, if I am completely honest, many of the closures may have occurred anyway, albeit over a longer time period, as our traditional high street retailers wrestled with the fast-changing pace of shopping habits in the UK.
We had already seen the rot starting to set in with the closures of cornerstone stores like BHS. Huge mainstream names who are stuck in the past with large, expensive properties when so much shopping had already moved online are all under threat. Lockdown one just accelerated this process for many more of our familiar retail traders and names like Clinton Cards, Laura Ashley, Hotter, Debenhams, Paxton & Whitfield, have all disappeared from Stratford town centre in the last year. And again, it may get worse before it gets better and even those who reopen this spring are going to face many challenges.
Having said that, it is definitely not all doom and gloom for Stratford. There are already signs of green shoots.
We are really lucky that a lot of our retail offer is made up of independent businesses that because of the size and hands-on management have been much better at adapting to the ongoing changing trading conditions, reinventing their business models as necessary.
Some of the ways these businesses have adapted to try to survive has been truly remarkable and they deserve a huge pat on the back.
I have been surprised by the demand for property.
I’m told by agents that a number of the vacant units on Bridge Street are already under offer, so hopefully these current scars on our local landscape will be removed soon... I’m just hoping with quality occupiers that will add to the town offer in a positive way.
The number of small independents in the town also looks set to increase further with a number of new businesses either opening during the last few months or due to open as soon as lockdown allows. There are no less than three new businesses opening in The Minories. Mor Bakery, Midsummer Garden, A Plan Insurance and The Refill Box are just four examples of businesses that have launched during the pandemic in town and are already going from strength to strength.
Winter could be the toughest test
Flair Gougoulia, restaurants representative, Stratforward BID
There is no denying that hospitality has been one of the hardest hit sectors in this pandemic, and because of the prevalence of such businesses in Stratford, this will have a greater impact on the local economy than in other places. There could be a number of cafes, bars, restaurants, pubs, hotels and guest houses that simply won’t make it.
The government support in lockdown one for the sector was good and most of our hospitality businesses did survive and reopened last summer. But lockdowns two and three have been very different. The level of government support has been a fraction and enforced closure will be about twice the length this time round. By the time they are allowed to reopen, most hospitality businesses in town will have been shut for ten of the last 14 months.
With bills and debts mounting and things like rates, albeit discounted, bounce back loan repayments and deferred VAT payments all coming into play in the coming weeks – before businesses already on their knees are even allowed to reopen – some may not even make it to opening day. However, my biggest concern for hospitality in Stratford is next winter.
I actually think Stratford will have a busy summer with locals and staycation visitors supporting our hospitality offer. But I just can’t see it being enough to get them all through the winter. The last government support packages, like furlough, all look set to disappear at the same time as the visitors do. Unless government support is extended we could still see many fail, just adding to the voids in town.
REACTIONS FROM AROUND THE DISTRICT
Edited extracts from longer feature in the Herald, 25th March
Cllr Vaughan Blake, Alcester Town Council
It’s difficult to say exactly at the moment how well our businesses have coped during the pandemic.
We were doing well before Christmas, but we’ll have to see when we emerge from this latest lockdown on 12th April.
However, the big thing for us is the launch of Totally Locally in Alcester in the next week, it’ll provide an online platform to show what the town’s businesses have to offer. We recognise that the high street is not going to be exactly the same as it was, but so many people shop online now and Totally Locally will let people know exactly what they can get from our high street businesses.
Aside from this we will be smartening up the high street, painting benches and phone boxes and removing weeds that have grown. Before lockdown we only had one empty shop, the former Barclays bank, but I know we’ve lost a travel agency and an antiques shop now.
Cllr Angela Okey, vice-chair of Henley Joint Parish Council and chair of Town Welfare sub-committee
Henley is open for business and ready to welcome visitors back to our historic high street.
During Covid our independent businesses have adapted and strived to provide an excellent local service to our residents.
As a councillor, I’ve worked with two local artists, Gary Nicklin and Colin Fisher, together with local studio Creative Touch and have produced some amazing promotional visitor information boards which you can find around the town.
We hope our visitors and their children will make the time to enjoy this great addition to our town. So after the children have sampled the world famous Henley Ice cream and the adults have savoured the delicious freshly brewed coffee and patiserie from Roberto and Dolce Cafe, we would invite them to wander down to our newly created beautiful picnic and children’s play area alongside the Riverlands walk.
We are about to launch a new visitor website, funded by Warwickshire County Council, we are delighted that we will have this platform to showcase our town attractions and independent businesses.
Finally, we are very fortunate to have two new residents in our town who have kindly agreed to create a Henley Food and Drink Trail – a huge thank you to Kate and Paul from Hamilton Rouse. Both of these projects will be launched in time for Easter.
Cllr Sheelagh Saunders, Shipston town mayor
People in Shipston are already making plans for the future and it’s possible the annual Proms will go ahead at some stage. For businesses it’s hard to say but we do have several new shops and we continue to promote Totally Locally shopping, there’s also a detective trail for children and parents which brings people into the town.
Ultimately, we’re hoping for a positive year.
Quite a few pubs have no outside areas but if the 12th April goes well – subject to any review – things could change.
Let’s crack on, forge ahead and work within the government guidelines and then hopefully everything will be all right.