The next subject on the Cabinet’s Agenda was shopping centres, what is to be
done with them, and the final draft of the Shopping Strategy was up for adoption. Deputy
Chief Executive Jane Richardson put forward the case for it.
High streets are changing as purchases go on-line with the “grim prediction” that it will soon reach 50% of sales. “But we know how important our towns are to the economy of our borough and how critical they are to the wellbeing of our community”. (Around 23,300 people are employed in the town centre businesses which generate around £1·56 billion a year.)
“Our report is the outcome of considerable research and engagement and is a lengthy tome. We face a massive challenge and we will need to work collectively to sustain our town centres.”
Cabinet Member Louie French said, err, nothing not said already while Cabinet Member Craske said that “town centres that invest and stop; die. The successful ones keep reinventing themselves”.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) welcomed the fact that the Strategy acknowledged that all Bexley’s town centres are different and stressed the importance of proper funding.
Councillor Richard Diment (Conservative, Sidcup) said the Strategy was very well thought through but it was “important to have key partners on board”. He reintroduced the subject of Post Office counters and “their attitude”.
They closed the Post Office in Sidcup three weeks ago, they knew three months earlier but did absolutely “nothing to facilitate a solution”.
“They only got around to a consultation letter on the day the Post Office actually closed. Mr. Brokenshire met the Post Office in London today about their apparent tardiness.”
“Small businesses have a fleetness of foot but key people like the Post Offices have got to be in our town centres. We saw Bexley Village go eight months with no Post Office and there are problems in Abbey Wood and Slade Green. Somehow people like the Post Office have to be brought on side and made to be far more responsive to the needs of the local community or otherwise Councillors end up being blamed, as we are in Sidcup, for the closure of the Post Office. Post Office counters have a very frustrating attitude at the moment.”
Richard Diment is becoming a very good campaigning Councillor for Sidcup and Bexley more generally.
Councillor Val Clark (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling) said things “are deteriorating in Welling, the traders feel let down by everybody”. There is too much crime and three of the shopkeepers have given themselves a year “and I am getting out”. They don’t like doing business in Welling and they are afraid. One had a violent attack in her shop and received no support from the police.”
“They don’t like it there any more; it is the upsurge of crime. The challenge is greater than it was even a few months ago.”
Councillor Linda Bailey (Conservative, Crooklog) said that in Bexleyheath everything including the car park shuts at five thirty “and then it is dead”. Cabinet Member Louie French said “the big game changer will be the opening of the Bellway development. The flow of people will see some changes to the town centre and businesses will open up”.
Despite the misgivings the Town Centres Strategy was adopted.
If like me you learned very little from the meeting of what the Strategy means in practice maybe the stated key aims will shed a little light on it. Maybe.
• Business Health and Inward investment: Supporting independent businesses and encouraging inward investment (from both nationals and independents) into our town centres, broadening the appeal of each town centre with its target customer base.
• Digital Economy: Facilitating improved connectivity in town centres and helping equip businesses to compete digitally through online commerce and marketing.
• Evening and Night Time Economy (E/NTE): Encouraging a more diverse offer for all ages to socialise and enjoy, whilst managing the Licensing and Planning regime to ensure locations with E/NTE uses feel safe to both users and residents.
• Place Marketing: Working with partner organisations to market each town centre in a coordinated way. Enhancing and celebrating each town centre’s unique selling points to develop positive brands.
• Place Making and Public Realm: Creating sustainable, healthy, distinctive and attractive places for people to live, work, shop and socialise. Longer term this involves managing the development agenda through the Local Plan, but within the scope of the Town Centres Strategy this focuses on nurturing and reinforcing character through preserving or repurposing key sites and enhancing the public realm.
• Diversifying the Retail and Leisure Offer: Improving our understanding of the retail and socialising needs and expectations of town centre customers – including children and younger people. Providing more Planning flexibility to encourage innovative uses of space and testing new retail and leisure concepts through meanwhile use.
• Accessibility and Wayfinding: Making our town centres easier to access through a variety of modes – making it easier and safer for people to walk and cycle - and the town centres themselves more welcoming and inclusive for all residents and visitors – including those with disabilities.
• Events, Markets and Meanwhile Uses: Encouraging and supporting a wider range of quality special events and markets to activate public spaces, and using vacant retail units for test trading of new and innovative business/leisure offerings. A key part of the Strategy is to identify how, working with other town centre stakeholders, the Council could either directly or indirectly enable improvements and economic prosperity, and in doing so tap into a wider range of resources to effect change. This will include working closely with the existing Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), but also with businesses and landlords more widely to build the collective capacity to effect change in their localities. Subject to available resources, the potential interventions will need to be developed, including the prioritisation and programming of current budgets and working with external stakeholders. These will be included in an action plan to be published early Autumn.