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How Can Our Town Centre Businesses Recover? Watch the Shop Front Debate

Published on: 4 May, 2020
Updated on: 5 May, 2020

Feelings among local retailers “range from despair to hope” about their future and the future of Guildford town centre. But the High Street “will never look again as it did before the pandemic”.

Hugh Coakley, The Guildford Dragon’s Shop Front reporter, interviews GBC Council Leader Caroline Reeves, Lead councillor for Finance Joss Bigmore and Amanda Masters, CEO of Experience Guildford Business Improvement District representing retail and leisure businesses in the town centre

Hear what they have to say and have your say too by using the “Leave a Reply” feature below.

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Responses to How Can Our Town Centre Businesses Recover? Watch the Shop Front Debate

  1. David Gradel Reply

    June 1, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    Over the last few weeks, The Dragon has provided commentary on the changing nature of retailing, its impact on Guildford and, together with some of Guildford’s ‘movers and shakers’, considered whether the Town Centre would recover and what shape it might take.

    I hope the following contributes to the discussions:

    1. Guildford is a wealthy community in an attractive geographic setting. This encouraged the town to grow and attract the retail offer, services and facilities that have been established here. Guildford’s community continues to grow and is unlikely to change fundamentally, however, its demands and the way those demands are serviced are changing.

    2. Retailers have been attracted to Guildford by the financial strength of the community. Comment is made that a number of retailers and restaurants are now disappearing due to high rents and the difficulty to operate profitably, as well as the impact of the internet on shopping.

    Whilst the internet has certainly affected retailing, a number of retailers have continued to prosper, as well as marrying high street with online retailing. A number of the retail groups referred to in the articles as disappearing from the High Street, have a history of being financially engineered to death, as well as having over expanded their operations, some into locations which are still suffering from the 2009 financial crash.

    Rental levels, as well as the business rates that a local authority charges to support its operations, is a function of the attraction of a particular location to the public and the practicality of particular premises to house the desired retail function or service.

    3. In considering the factors that encourage the creation of a town centre that people, both local and non-local, want to go to and stay in, your three interviewees raised critical issues:

    • Need to feel safe (Joss Bigmore)
    • Attracted to come in and enjoy town centre (Joss Bigmore)
    • Enjoy walking around in a cleaner town with no or less traffic (Caroline Reeves)
    • Retailers adapting, the High Street not dying but changing (Amanda Masters)

    Safe – in the post-coronavirus world, distancing is part of the “new normal”. Whether it’s walking on the street, shopping in a store or in a mall, eating inside or outside a restaurant, and so on. Guildford for all its historic attraction, particularly on High Street, does not offer that. The pavements and the lanes are narrow and cramped and the topography creates issues that need considering.

    The government is offering substantial grants to councils to upgrade their town centre pedestrian (and cycling) facilities and this should be taken immediate advantage of. Spin-offs from this would include the opportunities for restaurants and cafes to offer outdoor seating; increase the capacity for outdoor markets (both more frequent and more extensive); and an improvement in public realm facilities to allow those living in and visiting Guildford to enjoy the sights, sounds and views of and surrounding Guildford town centre.

    Quality street lighting is always important, both to link areas and to encourage a feeling of security, particularly in the evening and night-time, with particular for older people. This helps to encourage coming to and remaining in the town centre for longer and later.

    Experience Guildford’s Blue Caps are already providing a valuable service to help the public navigate their way around the town centre and to provide extra hands and eyes where they might be needed in the town centre to assist the public.

    Attraction and enjoyment – are two sides of the same coin. Guildford High Street and the area around the Castle are attractive, but that’s about it for a town centre which is not so big. As far the rest of the centre, it is carved up by traffic that also destroys linkage through to the River Wey and the use of the river for tourism, leisure, entertainment and the other opportunities that a waterway/waterside can bring to the enjoyment of a town centre.

    Bedford Wharf, Onslow Street, the Gyratory Bridges, North Street and the Bus Station need to be returned to the residents of Guildford and its visitors, and if that seems a tall order, it is no taller than the steps a number of Authorities are taking throughout the UK and are being encouraged to do so by Central Government.

    Whilst a number of these matters were being pursued prior to the coronavirus pandemic and its disastrous effects, the events of the last few months have caused many to reconsider all aspects of their personal, social and business lives which, in turn, has created the opportunity for local authorities to make changes, some quite dramatic in the way their towns and cities work. Guildford must not lose this opportunity.

    Another element feeding into the town centre mix, as a result of the pandemic, is the effect of greater working from home and the desire by many to avoid daily commutes by train or car to London or other centres of employment. This could create greater local demand for an increased retail and hospitality offer and remote office/hub facilities. The demographics of Guildford’s population, its geographic location and its established communications, make it ideally suited to benefit from these developments.

    Adapting and Changing. Retailers (and all occupiers of accommodation) have constantly been adapting to the changing physical, economic and social environments in which they exist. Whilst the internet is having a significant impact on peoples’ lives, there is much that can be done by Guildford Borough Council to make Guildford an attractive place to come to, stay in and enjoy. That, in turn, will have a significant impact on the user and visitor populations, which are the lifeblood of the town centre and its retailers. All the matters referred to above will have effects and the councils should be driving that change, the government is supportive of many initiatives, but it’s up to the councils to take the lead.

    Final thought – Guildford’s streets may not be paved with gold, but cutting the traffic, greening the town and paving the town centre’s streets may help create a golden future.

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