With the local authority elections taking place in Wales next week, a number of lobbying and membership organisations have produced a range of policy papers over the last few months highlighting some of the key issues that councils could tackle when they are re-elected.
One of the most relevant of these is the report from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), entitled a Vision for Welsh Towns, which has examined the main challenges, issues and opportunities for town centres across Wales.
Given the diversity of town centres, there is unlikely to be one simple solution to the issues raised in the report. Nevertheless, the study should give food for thought not only to local authorities on the way forward for towns across Wales but also to other key stakeholders including the Welsh Government, the UK Government and private business.
So what do the public in Wales think about the state of their towns? Unfortunately, the research shows that two thirds of those interviewed described their town centre or high street as bleak or bad with only 3% stating that it was ‘thriving’.
Whilst a variety of recent studies have shown that the public have tended to use local shops more during the pandemic, the FSB study paints a very different picture with nearly half of those questioned stating that their use of the high street had declined in the last two years and only one in ten having increased their use over the same period. In fact, 57% stated they had increased their use of online shopping during the pandemic.
Perhaps the one silver lining from interviewing the public about this current situation is that they ranked ‘thriving and small independent shops’ as their highest priority for the future of their town centres.
But what is the view of those independent businesses based in town centres on their current situation, especially with two thirds experiencing reduced consumer demand or cancellations recently?
Given the dependence on local shoppers, a clear majority interviewed stated that the lack of accessible car parking was a barrier to success in town centres, a situation exacerbated by parking at out of town shopping centres being free. Of course, those in government will point to official studies that suggest that there is little relationship between car parking charges and footfall, yet it is noticeable that both shoppers and businesses in this survey suggest otherwise.
In fact, with suggestions that car parks are merely being used to generate revenue for general spending within local authorities, there seems to be little proper understanding of the short term challenges that, as this study has shown, have been faced by many businesses during the pandemic and in its immediate aftermath.
The owners of shops and town centre premises also believed that business rates were an unfair charge that was hindering their future viability. Although there have been calls for town centres in need of regeneration to be classed as renewal zones with zero business rates, there is little evidence that such an innovative policy is under consideration by policymakers here in Wales.
But perhaps what is most important in terms of regenerating our town centres is clear and coherent leadership that actually takes action to change the current dire situation that many of our town centres find themselves in.
According to the study, there was little confidence in politicians and policymakers in changing this with only a third stating that their local business had been supported during the pandemic and with as little as 12% being happy with the progress taken to improve their own centres.
To date that leadership has been sadly missing despite many of the problems above having been identified years ago and whilst there are examples of town improvements across Wales, they have largely failed to engender a real transformative experience to many high streets up and down the country.
As the FSB rightly suggest, City and Growth Deals across Wales must prioritise town centres to strengthen their regions and the new Shared Prosperity Fund could and should be employed to support this objective and help to level up across Wales.
With only three Welsh cities, our town centres form the heart of the majority of communities across the nation. Yet as this report shows, there remain many challenges in ensuring that the FSB’s vision of town centres with a vibrant small and independent retail offer, having high streets that are ready for a digital age and spaces that people feel safe in and enjoy actually become real.
There also seems to be little progress in ensuring increased resilience and activity throughout the year, sustained levels of increased footfall and the development of unique cultural and creative footprints in towns across Wales.
Once these elections are over, these issues need to be a priority for local councillors as having a strong economic base within our town centres will be vital in ensuring that secure good local jobs are created and, more importantly, cohesive communities are developed that make a real difference to the wealth and health of citizens across Wales.