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Shoppers and workers have their say on the decline and changing face of Gillingham high street


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Once the beating heart of every community and bustling with shoppers, is the high street at risk of being forgotten?

With many stores announcing their closing dates and empty units putting shoppers off, reporter Megan Carr visited Gillingham for the first time.

Gillingham high street was very empty
Gillingham high street was very empty

It was a crisp and windy Autumn morning and, as someone who had never been to Gillingham before, I really didn't know what to expect from its high street.

Unfortunately, I had heard bad things about the area. One of my female friends had been attacked there and several of my colleagues said it was rather dismal, but I didn't want to judge before seeing it for myself.

I parked in one of the many car parks and used the Ringo app to buy my ticket. The first thing I noticed was that many of the car parks are only two-hour stays, which isn't ideal for a day full of shopping.

As someone who previously lived in Gravesend, I was used to a heaving high street – this was not the case in Gillingham. To be brutally honest, it was rather pathetic.

I know the weather didn't help but the dull, grey high street had no more than 10 people wandering up and down.

New Look in Gillingham high street
New Look in Gillingham high street

Apart from a Costa, a couple of banks, a Newlook, a Peacocks, a Greggs and the now closing, WHSmith, the high street was short on, well, high-street names.

There wasn't a Primark, nothing like a McDonald's, or anything else that would draw in visitors like the larger chains do. Much to my surprise, the biggest options were for shops selling food from different corners of the world.

Wilko and Sports Direct were also down the street but, again, they didn't look like they were overflowing with customers. It was quite sad to see.

When people now say that the high street is dying, is this what they mean? In Gillingham, there was hardly anyone around.

But perhaps bucking the trend in a small way are the charity shops, all of which appeared to have quite a few customers having a look around.

Wilko and Sports Direct in Gillingham high street
Wilko and Sports Direct in Gillingham high street

Those I went in were amazingly stocked, they had some really lovely bits and I had to force myself away from the clothes on sale.

After a brief look around the Cancer Research shop I had a chat with the manager, Vanessa Davis.

Vanessa has worked at the shop for 27 years and explained to me that she had definitely seen big changes to the high street.

She said: "It is so sad. We've seen the high street decline – it just happens over the years.

"We know that all high streets are the same now but it's just so, so sad in Gillingham.

The Cancer Research charity in Gillingham high street
The Cancer Research charity in Gillingham high street

"The biggest thing now is the number of shops that are actually closing and they're not being replaced with shops that people want to come and visit.

"There is hardly anywhere to buy clothing, other than the charity shops. It just isn't a very good high street at all now."

Vanessa explained that she thinks the high street is no longer appealing to customers.

She said: "The banks are now leaving us because they have such a low amount of footfall and there just really isn't anything to come here for now.

"We had customers that used to go over to the HSBC bank across the road. They don't come in anymore because they no longer have to come to the high street.

Lots of closed shops have been replaced with food stores
Lots of closed shops have been replaced with food stores

"It's not the sort of high street you would choose to come to for shopping. It's the type of high street you just pop to.

"It just seems that all the time shops are closing, more food stores are opening, we're just surrounded by them, as well as nail bars and barbers.

"There is nothing really here that anyone wants to come to."

Vanessa and the store have seen a steady decline in customers over the years and despite their best efforts, they can't get more people to buy their stock.

She said: "We clean the shop, make it look as appealing as it can, to make it look nice, but if there is no one in the high street, what can you do?"

Gillingham high street has changed over the last few years
Gillingham high street has changed over the last few years

Vanessa told me that sometimes, the entire charity shop stinks of marijuana due to people smoking the drug outside.

She and the staff she looks after have also witnessed antisocial behaviour, theft and have had abuse shouted at them as they walk home.

She said: "I have to walk through an alley by the high street to get to my car and I always carry my keys between my fingers and I carry a small can of deodorant to protect myself, just in case I need to spray it at someone's eyes."

Vanessa even tells her staff who are working in the evening alone to lock the back door fully, even during opening hours, due to fears of someone getting in the store when only one member of staff is working.

Lynn, the assistant manager, often does this and told me about the antisocial behaviour they'd witnessed.

The manager at Cancer Research has witnessed lots of anti-social behaviour in Gillingham high street
The manager at Cancer Research has witnessed lots of anti-social behaviour in Gillingham high street

She said: "We've had spikes put onto the shop's roof to deter young kids from walking on and across our roof.

"They get on our roof and they jump from shop to shop, we've all had enough.

"We heard a story that they were on the pound shop's roof spitting on customers that were walking on the high street below.

"No wonder it is so empty, why would you want to come and shop in a place like that?"

Vanessa agreed, adding: "Lots of people would now rather drive and shop at Hempstead Valley.

Is Gillingham high street dying?
Is Gillingham high street dying?

"If you went there you would feel completely safe. It's lovely there, so much better than here.

"And with all the big shops like Marks and Spencer moving to these shopping parks, it just means the high street is doomed."

After saying goodbye to the very lovely, but clearly frustrated ladies, I had a look at some of the other charity shops.

The workers at the Demelza store also felt like the high street was dying.

One of the volunteers, who had been at the shop for eight years, said: "It used to be quite a buzzing place but now those big shops have gone it is looking quite sad.

The Demelza charity shop in Gillingham high street
The Demelza charity shop in Gillingham high street

"Unless something changes the next year is going to be a real challenge for the people and shops that are here and I can't see it getting better."

Those at the Oxfam shop felt the same.

One woman said: "I love it in this store – and charity shops – but a lot of people don't and people just come to the high street to sit about and they don't shop.

"I can't see it happening but it would be great to get the high street back to where it was."

Whilst walking around and looking into the shops I tried to speak to a few shoppers to see how they felt.

The walk way from the car park to Gillingham high street
The walk way from the car park to Gillingham high street

Sadly, my attempts to strike up a conversation were met with a lot of abuse. I was only asking what they thought about the area and whether they liked the shops.

There were two people who shared their views. One woman, named Lucy, was waiting for a taxi with her shopping at her feet.

She said: "I've lived by Gillingham high street for about 15 years now.

"I mainly buy cat food and stuff for my kids. For most of my other shopping, I usually go to Bluewater or Chatham.

"I used to work in the high street as well and from that perspective and a shopper's perspective I've seen it go downhill drastically.

Lucy
Lucy

"It's just not a nice place to shop anymore really.

"I don't think the high street will even be this busy in a year's time, it might not even be here.

"There is nothing here, there is nothing decent to come here for, which is sad because it used to be a decent high street."

After saying goodbye to the mum I spoke to one last person on the way back to my car.

Jason Hook was sitting, enjoying a cup of coffee under a gazebo, his shopping neatly sat by his feet.

Jason Cook
Jason Cook

He lives in Twydall and visits the high street regularly.

He said: "I've been here for a long time. I've seen the high street change quite a bit.

"It has lost a lot of older shops that used to bring in a lot more people.

"There used to be a lot more customers but that has really changed. It still has customers but it doesn't feel as lively as it did when I was younger."

Many people feel that perhaps Medway Council has forgotten about Gillingham, pointing to work that's gone on to improve Rochester, Chatham and Strood.

Lots of shops are shut in the high street
Lots of shops are shut in the high street

Fresh from my visit to Gillingham, I contacted Cllr Andy Stamp (Lab), who represents Gillingham North.

He said: “The Tory council had given us assurances that Gillingham would be the recipient of a second round of Future High Street Funding.

"This hasn’t yet materialised. While Gillingham will receive a fraction of the Welcome Back money provided by the European Regional Development Fund, this unfortunately pales in comparison to the potential amount of money the town could receive from the Future High Streets Fund.

“We are calling on the council to be more transparent on just how much money will be allocated to Gillingham as part of the Welcome Back Fund, and also to be clearer on the timescale of the current situation regarding trying to seek Gillingham a place on any further rounds of Future High Streets funding.

"Following the coronavirus economic slump, the town needs investment and it needs it fast.”

Cllr Andy Stamp
Cllr Andy Stamp

Cllr Pat Cooper, representative of Gillingham North added: “This quite simply isn’t good enough from the council.

"Their answer to this question showed a complete neglect of Gillingham and is indicative of a stagnant local government that is completely lacking any ideas to help foster economic growth in our town.

“We have no objection to increased investment in Chatham, but we feel the residents of Gillingham would prefer to hear about what the council plans to do to help them when directly asked a question about Gillingham, instead of talking about other areas.”

While the future for Gillingham high street remains uncertains, what is clear is that the people that shop and work there feel like the area is on its knees.

Whether it's new shops, a makeover or just more time to recover from the pandemic, Gillingham high street is in dire need of some TLC.

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