The Harrogate Advertiser is undertaking a retail survey for Harrogate town. This is something I strongly support. Indeed, only in January supported by local councillors, I carried out a detailed Retail and Market Inquiry in Knaresborough.
The level of interest in this was demonstrated by the fact that I received thousands of responses. In fact, it was the biggest response to any survey in Knaresborough since the last census.
For retail to be successful we need people using our shops in our towns and villages.
This may seem like stating the obvious but so many of the people who do a hefty proportion of their shopping online statistically have to be the same people who are vociferous about empty shops.
And with the growth of online retail, high street stores are finding it more difficult to draw in the crowds solely on their own merit. Therefore, the retail sector of a town cannot stand alone.
It is part of a wider mix that gets people into the town centre where they can then see opportunities for spending away from their computer keyboard.
So, alongside high street retailers adapting their business models in the light of the relentless growth of online shopping, we need a strategy that brings people into the retail centre.
But that is not to say we do badly now. Harrogate’s retail vacancy rate – the number of empty shops – fell to historically low levels last quarter.
The difference from the past though is that the units that are vacant are the large units run by national chains rather than the smaller ones.
Next looks set to move into the Victoria Shopping Centre, a new gym has opened in the Everyman complex and bucking the trend of recent restaurant closures a new Brazilian restaurant has just opened on Albert Street.
A planning application has recently been approved for a large furniture outlet to take many of the vacant units above the train station on Station Parade.
In Knaresborough, we are seeing a more determined approach by the council to bring empty shops back in to use.
Forty-six Market Place is to become a new butchers, the old Dacre, Son and Hartley estate agents – vacant for over a year – has a planning application running to convert it to residential. And the council is looking at stronger action against the owners of 78 to 82 High Street who are refusing to bring those long-term empty properties back into use.
But, despite this improvement, my point is that a retail revival cannot be sustained without the customers to sustain it. When we have events like the Bed Race, Pride, the Christmas Market and the suchlike there are people brought into our towns who are likely then to shop and eat there too.
Historian Malcolm Neesam had an interesting letter in the paper some weeks ago when he spoke about encouraging residential living back in to our town centres on a much broader scale. I think this has potential too to grow the ‘audience’ for town centre retail.
Our towns as a whole must exploit the digital age rather than be a victim of it.
Harrogate is piloting a national initiative for smart parking – an app based solution to finding a parking spot close to where you want to be and paying automatically through the app for the exact number of minutes used. There are pilots planned for Harrogate and Knaresborough for free town centre WiFi which
opens up the possibility for advertising and promotions direct to the target audience.
An approach that integrates retail, business, hospitality, events, residential use and the latest internet technology seems to me to be the only viable way forward for our town centres.
The important thing is that these developments are made as part of a strategy.
This requires a concerted effort by all with a stake in our town centre to put their shoulders behind the wheel.
I hope that this may be one of the outcomes of the Advertiser’s retail survey.