'Time to make our streets attractive and accessible' says Harrogate Borough Council leader, Coun Richard Cooper

The leader of Harrogate Borough Council, Coun Richard Cooper says the time has come to change the way we think about our town centre and attract people to it.

Friday, 5th March 2021, 2:54 pm
Updated Friday, 5th March 2021, 2:56 pm

Town centres change.

A century ago much of Harrogate centre was residential. As incomes rose and people had more to spend, town centres changed predominantly to retail. Car ownership changed our town centres.

Mass car ownership meant car parks as demand outstripped availability. The rise of chain stores - which drove new footfall - changed town centres again. Now the internet is changing town centres again. It is changing them because it is changing us.

Harrogate Borough Council leader, Coun Richard Cooper, says the time has come to change the way we attract people to our town centre.

In the 1980s most Saturdays I was taken into town by my mother shopping. My mum invariably had to go to the bank. Often we would go to the post office to get stamps to post letters or cards.

We got our fruit and veg from the market (and often clothes too before Next and GAP) and meat from the butchers.

While in town we might have a cup of tea and a sandwich. I had a Girobank account and paid in my weekly £1 but whether we needed a passport photo, a driving licence, booking a holiday, returning something faulty, clothes, food… everything had to be done in town. There was no alternative.

Harrogate Borough Council leader, Coun Richard Cooper, has explained his thoughts on the future of Harrogate town centre.

Now there is - online - and Covid has introduced a whole new audience to it while those who already shopped online have done it more. Retail - even smaller independent retail - has adapted by developing an online offer. Delivery companies have geared up usually guaranteeing next day delivery.

These are radical and accelerating changes.

Free parking, the weather, sorting the kids out, fitting around work, finding parking, catching the bus, personal banking - for a growing number, these simply aren’t relevant issues. The rise of online and the demise of anchor stores and high street banking has seen footfall decrease.

There is loyalty to independent shops and we have some great examples here. But the proposition that this will generate sufficient long-term footfall to enable town centres to continue as they have in an online age seems problematic.

In response to this trend of declining footfall the question we always ask is “How do we get more people to shop in town centres?”. It is the wrong question. And that’s why we get the wrong answer. When almost half of the population do half of their shopping and all their banking online, why are we asking a question that doesn’t reflect the reality of our everyday lives?

We should be asking: “How do we get more people into the town centre?” Because, if we can get people where the shops are then they will use them.

Let’s build people - customers - into the town centre by re-designating empty retail space as housing or for office and community use.

Why fixate on which shop is going to fill an empty unit? Why not a gym, a bowling alley, a church, offices, an after-school club or even a school itself? Doing this puts customers right on the doorstep of retail, cafes and restaurants. Why not have more town centre events? More markets, more street theatre, more music, more fire gardens, festivals and so on.

Traders tell me one of their best days is when we have the Christmas market.

All this requires re-dedicating space. Space to make streets attractive and accessible. Space in former retail units for community groups, gyms, offices and homes.

Our town centre streets should not be a place for cars when there are spaces in our car parks.

They should be a place for people enjoying town centre life and enjoying shopping as part of that while they do.

If we continue acting as though we are in a pre-Covid and pre-internet age the public will largely ignore the solutions we put in place because they won’t be relevant to how they live their lives.

But if we make our town centres places to live, work, meet, learn, exercise then people will shop there too. Uniting people around that purpose - recognising, accepting and embracing that new question and the answer - is the challenge.

What do you think of the comments made by Coun Richard Cooper? Write to us at: [email protected]