Kent Life investigates the economic health of our High Streets

PUBLISHED: 11:47 25 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:08 20 February 2013

Kent Life investigates the economic health of our High Streets

Kent Life investigates the economic health of our High Streets

Mary Portas has put the nation's High Streets firmly in the spotlight – so how are we doing in the Garden of England?

High Street Heroes

Mary Portas has put the nations High Streets firmly in the spotlight so how are we doing in the Garden of England? Kent Life visits key towns in the county to find out if theres life in the High Street yet

Back in May, Margate made the national headlines when it was chosen to be one of the 12 towns participating in a Government-backed scheme to regenerate local high streets.

The scheme has arisen from the recommendations of a report into high street regeneration by retail guru Mary Portas. The 12 Portas Pilots, as the towns have been dubbed, now each have a 100,000 grant to spend on breathing life back into their high streets.

This national attention threw the spotlight on a problem that people across Kent have been aware of for sometime; that the high streets in many of our countys towns are in a worrying state.

The problem is particularly acute on the coast, with several local high streets containing a significant number of empty retail units. Its the reason why you have a town like Margate which has an overall retail vacancy rate of 36 per cent, one of the highest in the country, says Mark Dance, Kent County Councils Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Development.

Many of these towns have found it difficult to adjust to a changing economic climate, such as the decline in domestic tourism, the attraction of out-of-town shopping centres and the growing appeal of giant supermarkets.

This is why so many of our coastal towns, such as Folkestone, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, applied for funds to redevelop their high streets.

But what does being a Portas Pilot mean and what will a town like Margate do with the money? Being a Portas Pilot finally gives people at grassroots level the chance to do something about the problems of the town, says high-street shopkeeper and one of the people behind the Margate Town Teams bid for the grant, Robin Vaughn-Lyons.

The thinking behind this effort at regeneration is for local people to initiate schemes and events that radically re-imagine the traditional concept of a High Street

There are a whole host of ideas that the Margate Town Team, which is made up of local people, can choose from says Robin.

For example, the high street could be home to a quality market, with a variety of stalls, complimenting shops and increasing footfall. Another mooted idea is to pilot the pedestrianisation of the upper high street to encourage a caf culture.

And I also think that the high street could profit from having a better appearance too, maybe via the introduction of a green space where visitors, residents and shoppers could relax.

Although Margates successful bid was welcomed by many associated with the regeneration of the town, not everyone located on the high street is confident that it will succeed. Thule Howard runs The Joke Shop, a business that has been in the town for more than a quarter of a century.

I think the problems here are unlikely to be solved by this new scheme. Aside from the two recessions, which are bad enough, the biggest problem facing local traders is out-of-town shopping, such as supermarkets but in particular, Westwood Cross, Thanets massive shopping centre that opened in 2005, says Thule.

This has effectively sucked the life out of Margate and other local towns because the shopping experience is so much more convenient there. You can park for free, everything you need is in one place and its not open to the elements.

Efforts at regeneration are welcome, such as the recently announced investment in housing in Margate Central and also the possible re-opening of Dreamland. However, the town is always going to struggle to compete against the appeal of Westwood Cross.

Although as Mark Dance believes, its the high streets in Kents coastal towns that have suffered the greatest difficulties, the problem is not confined to this part of the county.

Other places, including Maidstone, Tonbridge, Ashford and Dartford each possess town centres that contain empty retail units and high streets that are in need of some degree of regeneration. Its for this reason that these towns also applied to become part of the Portas scheme.

Like Margate, Dartford was successful in the inaugural round of bidding, and joined the coastal town among the original 12 Portas Pilots. A second round of bidding during the summer then saw Ashford chosen as a pilot town.

Although Tonbridge and Maidstone failed to gain funding, many of those behind the towns bids still feel the process was beneficial.

Not securing funding was a disappointment but despite this, one major positive of the Portas experience has been the development of a Town Team, says Katie Iggulden, Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council Estates Services Manager and a key member of the new Tonbridge Town Team.

Tonbridge has a great deal to offer and the Town Team hopes to draw on all its assets and build on them to create a thriving High Street - Katie Iggulden, Tonbridge

In the future, the Town Team hopes to organise events for Tonbridge, bringing new visitors into the town and enhancing the experience for regular visitors. The Town Team has already set up Facebook and Twitter accounts, keeping the public informed of events and happenings and providing a medium for ideas to be posted.

Tonbridge has a great deal to offer and the Town Team hopes to draw on all its assets and build on them to create a thriving High Street.

When people talk about a thriving High Street, the image that often comes to mind is one characterised by full occupancy and dominated by independent traders; the High Street in which the butcher, the baker and possibly even the candlestick maker still exist.

This is increasingly a rarity in the UK. Where high streets are not in decline and populated by empty retail units, they have largely fallen prey to the clone-town effect. This is the trend that has seen leading chains, such as Next, Primark and WH Smiths dominate the high streets of many towns.

But despite the twin problems of high street decline and cloning, Kent does possess a town that has managed to create this idealised picture of a thriving High Street; one that the New Economics Foundation judged to be the best performing town in the country in terms of independence and diversity. And that town is Whitstable.

Whitstable a wonderful example of what a High Street can be like. says Belinda Murray, who runs Herbaceous, a medical herbalists in the heart of Whitstable.

Its filled with independent traders, both high end and those supplying everyday items, and traders who know and understand the needs of local customers.

But how has Whitstable succeeded where so many other towns have fallen short? Belinda thinks she knows the answer. Its helped that theres a strong artistic community in this part of the county and its people from this group who have come here and opened interesting shops, often finding gaps in the market.

But also, the traders in the town are very supportive to one another. I think we all recognise the appeal of our independence to visitors and locals and so there is a co-operative spirit. And of course the role played by local people cant be underestimated. They seem to value what we have here and have made the effort to use the shops and not head straight to the supermarkets or other towns for what they need.

Despite the success evident in Whitstable, the town is not without problems. Chain stores are still evident, with the trend picking up in recent years. Whats more, traders such as Belinda are worried by a potential increase in rents to levels that would force many independent traders to relocate. But, at the moment at least, Whitstable still stands as an example that a thriving, independent High Street can exist.

And there is certainly evidence that whats happened in Whitstable can happen elsewhere in Kent. For example, despite the towns manifold problems, Margates old town has thrived in recent years and is filled with successful independent traders.

Importantly for supporters of regeneration, a contributory factor in this has been the building of Turner Contemporary, illustrative proof that investment in a town can yield success.

But whether the Whitstable model, or a more realistic one that encourages a blend of independent traders and chain stores can completely establish itself on the High Street in Kent is, according to Mark Dance, debatable.

Those of us involved in regeneration are hopeful that initiatives like the Portas Pilots can bring shoppers back to town centres. And the County Council is supporting this throughout Kent via investment in housing and infrastructure and also efforts to create jobs.

But there might come a time soon for us all to redefine what we think of as a High Street. There are likely going to be places where both chain stores and independent traders either cant or wont locate because local shoppers prefer to go elsewhere or buy online. In these areas it might make more sense to turn empty units over to residential use.

Surely better this redefinition than to simply struggle on for more years with the same model, a struggle that might ultimately prove fruitless?

We live in uncertain times for the High Street. Even once the current fetish for austerity has passed, the combined threat posed by the rise of internet shopping, out-of-town shopping centres and the growth of the supermarkets will ensure that the High Street as we know it faces a tough time surviving.

But what seems certain is that local people are not going to let it go without a fight. Town Teams and other groups across the county are actively doing what they can to ensure that those commercial streets, that for so long have been at the centre of our communities will survive for future generations to enjoy.

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