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How Kent's high streets can be saved after coronavirus lockdown and big name closures like Debenhams


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If you ask most people, they'll tell you our town centres are dying.

With the rise of internet shopping and a focus on out-of-town shopping centres, things were already looking dicey for the traditional British high street.

Can Kent's high streets weather the storm caused by Covid?
Can Kent's high streets weather the storm caused by Covid?

Then Covid-19 happened, town centre shops were shut for months at a time and warnings flared across all sectors that the pandemic could spell their demise.

However is there a way our high streets could recover and, indeed, thrive?

Speaking to Graham Galpin, a member of the national High Streets Task Force, it would seem there is a way.

When working on the expert panel behind the 2018 High Street Report, the former Ashford Borough Council (ABC) cabinet member noted that through his visits to towns across the country "we found commonalities between what was dragging towns backwards and what was making them successful".

He added: "But we could tell that times were changing and we recommended the government provide money to allow towns to make structural changes to their antiquated infrastructure and buildings."

Graham Galpin is a fellow of the Institute of Place Management and is an expert on the national High Streets Task Force
Graham Galpin is a fellow of the Institute of Place Management and is an expert on the national High Streets Task Force

However, the report - which secured more than £600 million in government funding for high street development - was made without a global pandemic in mind.

Mr Galpin, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on Kent County Council as a Conservative candidate in May, said: "All of a sudden, everything we'd been predicting over a five or ten year period happened in a year."

He fears the nature of high streets will forever be changed by Covid, saying: "The high street will not be the same animal when the dust has settled.

"We're seeing a change in the way people are shopping and working.

"Nationally we're seeing footfall in town centres and shopping centres down from 2019 by 25%.

High streets across the country were deserted as national lockdowns became the norm. Picture: John Nurden
High streets across the country were deserted as national lockdowns became the norm. Picture: John Nurden

"Though you can see a lot of empty properties currently, they won't be empty for a long time.

"They won't be full of shops as they were - there's a general feeling there'll be more independent shops.

"What also might go into these places, aside from restaurants, cafes and bars, are health centres like the One You shop that's been trialled in Ashford."

Health initiatives like the One You shop in Ashford could become commonplace
Health initiatives like the One You shop in Ashford could become commonplace

In a possible boon for the county, the man who calls himself 'The Placechanger' said: "Peripheral towns like those in Kent that feed London will benefit from people working from home.

"They've been going out and doing shopping locally, rather than being in their office in London and shopping on the way home."

He notes that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to keep high streets alive, in that every town poses a unique set of challenges and opportunities.

In Kent, he highlights the potential for a new golden era of tourism, saying: "The coastal towns are doing better because of staycations.

Coastal towns such as Whitstable are expected to bounce back from the lockdowns as more staycations are expected this year
Coastal towns such as Whitstable are expected to bounce back from the lockdowns as more staycations are expected this year

"They're now very attractive to holidaymakers and if we had good weather, it would be even better.

"They have every reason to be confident and there's been some great work done in coastal towns, and for me Folkestone is a shining example of that."

Folkestone has invested a lot of money over recent years in becoming a hotspot for art, and its harbour arm project has increased the number of day trippers and independent businesses since launching in 2015.

Moreover, popular events like the town's triennial have encouraged visitors from further afield to get a glimpse of what the town has to offer.

Graham Galpin singled out Folkestone, with its popular Harbour Arm, as a shining example of making a town attractive to visitors
Graham Galpin singled out Folkestone, with its popular Harbour Arm, as a shining example of making a town attractive to visitors

Aside from Kent's coast, he predicts that Canterbury will remain a popular destination for both national - and international, when allowed - tourists due to the "special appeal" of the town's history.

However he says that multi-use towns like Ashford and Maidstone are "very much about servicing the communities they serve and if you don't use the shops they're going to go."

He notes that the service industry shops, such as barbers, tattoo parlours and tanning salons, "will always be with us, because you can't buy a tattoo or haircut online. Are we saturated with them? I think yes, we probably are."

Barbers and tattoo shops will continue to be omnipresent on our high streets. Archive picture
Barbers and tattoo shops will continue to be omnipresent on our high streets. Archive picture

Mr Galpin also highlights a rise in "transitory uses", with shops less likely to last generations as they used to.

He said: "Instead of having a shop stay the same for 50 years, they'll change every decade or so at most so we have to make it easier for that change of use.

"One of my main points of contention are permitted development rights, i.e. you can convert town centre businesses without going through the planning process.

"There is the very real risk that you get a better return by closing up shop as a landlord and turning it into residential, thereby losing a shop and gaining a potentially second-rate accommodation with no parking."

Town centre car parking is a contentious issue, with frequent calls for fees to be waived
Town centre car parking is a contentious issue, with frequent calls for fees to be waived

The issue of parking is a common concern among residents and business owners, with many calling for free town centre parking to boost trade.

The high street expert highlighted the balancing act of making it free, asking how upkeep would be paid for and suggesting commuters could simply park in the free car park and lower the amount of available spaces for shoppers.

As a result, he says he approves of charging for parking but wouldn't comment on the rates charged by each Kent district.

One issue the high street faces is the loss of big brands, such as Debenhams, John Lewis and Marks and Spencer, which used to draw people into the high street.

Mr Galpin, who oversaw Ashford town centre during his time on ABC before losing his seat by just one vote in 2019, said: "Of course, their loss plays a role. I wrote a blog post for the Institute of Place Management (IPM) in which I described the high street as a house of cards.

The closure of big brands like Debenhams may also keep potential shoppers away from town centres
The closure of big brands like Debenhams may also keep potential shoppers away from town centres

"If you take out the big players from the foundation, there's less reason for people to go into the town centre and visit the other shops so the other cards begin to fall.

"There is a fear that people won't return to the high street, even after July 19.

"I can't see an upward trend beyond where we've got to at the moment, but I think it more likely that if we enact the right methods we will see a footfall increase.

"You can't come to Debenhams now, so there's got to be something else to do.

"What we say at the IPM is it's vital that you take an active stance in promoting what your town can do, not lamenting what it can't."

Ashford's high street was bustling on the Snowdog launch day in 2018. Picture: Wayne McCabe
Ashford's high street was bustling on the Snowdog launch day in 2018. Picture: Wayne McCabe
The Snowdog trail's success has encouraged Maidstone to bring in a similar Elmer trail. Picture: Wayne McCabe
The Snowdog trail's success has encouraged Maidstone to bring in a similar Elmer trail. Picture: Wayne McCabe

He highlighted the Snowdogs Art Trail which came to Ashford in 2018, the success of which has led Maidstone to install its current Elmer trail.

Mr Galpin said: "The Snowdogs saw footfall increase by 20% over the period it was in the town, and that number never went down until of course the first lockdown.

"It attracted people to the town centre who may not have come otherwise, and that's key.

"As a rural county, many people shop exclusively in places like Canterbury or Bluewater or Westwood Cross.

"But actually we need to display all the good things each town has. For example, here in Ashford we have the likes of Curious Brewery and Elwick Place that people just won't know about if they came five years ago and decided Ashford wasn't for them.

The experience offered by Bluewater and other shopping centres is a factor that drives customers to visit them
The experience offered by Bluewater and other shopping centres is a factor that drives customers to visit them

"Every town is ever-changing, and councils as well as the local community needs to promote the good things about their area.

"You need to win the hearts and minds of people in your catchment."

Another important way that councils and concerned residents can help high streets thrive in the future is to get involved in the community, and also to use the shops now they have reopened.

Mr Galpin, who lives in Barrow Hill Terrace, Ashford, offered the statistic that in 1970, 70% of all purchases were made between 29,000 companies. By 2000, roughly the same percentage was shared between just 400.

When asked whether out-of-town shopping centres or retail parks had caused the high street's downturn, he said: "I think it's too late to say that now, that should've been raised 20 or 30 years ago.

Shopping centres have also been struggling due to the pandemic
Shopping centres have also been struggling due to the pandemic

"People at that time thought they were doing the right thing.

"Interestingly on shopping centres nationally, 10% of them are at risk of complete imminent closure because their void rates are so high they're not tenable.

"This could be a time of change for shopping centres as well - 20 to 30% of them will only survive if they change their character, bringing in more residential and health uses alongside retail."

But what about town centres? What does 'The Placechanger' describe as the number one priority for bringing people back to the high street?

He said: "That is the most important, actual, visible success factor - making the town centre into an experience you can't get elsewhere.

The Museum of the Moon at Rochester Cathedral
The Museum of the Moon at Rochester Cathedral

"You've got to ensure your town is unique, clean and safe.

"I'd say most if not all towns in Kent are clean and safe, but giving people a reason to come into town is vital.

"Curation is the key. Partnership and curation.

"You need all the shops and restaurants in a room together, discussing the high street, expressing their wishes, because ultimately a lot of them have the means to do things themselves.

"You shouldn't have to go to the council for everything but I think councils should now give the impression of 'How can we help?' and I think that's now happening.

"I think that Kent's towns are certainly on the way to recovery, and I'm confident that our towns' high streets will be able to adapt and survive."

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