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Coming to a High Street Near You

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The bollards and barriers appearing along many of our High Streets have at times proved to be highly contentious. In an attempt by councils to help keep people safe, parking spaces have been removed to create more space to allow for social distancing as we continue to live under the cloud that is Covid-19.

This rapid action by the authorities illustrates the value of public consultation when changes are being implemented in our built environment. Although in this instance, as this action was taken in response to a pandemic, councils should be forgiven for not undertaking consultation. This is in part because there wasn’t time to do so, and also to create a safe environment they may felt there was no alternative.

Equally, now the schemes are in place, people living and working in these communities should have the opportunity to provide feedback, based on their local knowledge and experience, to help ensure their High Streets can function in a way that is safe for everyone.

Unfortunately, we have seen instances where people have chosen to move bollards to park cars, and we’ve witnessed the scene of trees being wilfully destroyed soon after being positioned on Wellfield Road in Cardiff. Whilst the lack of public consultation may have been a contributory factor leading to these actions, they do also illustrate the strength of the relationship many people have with their cars. Understandably, traders have been expressing their concern on the basis that if shoppers can’t park they won’t visit and their businesses will suffer as a result.

At the same time an increasing number of people are making the environment their number one concern, and across Wales there are clear ambitions to reduce our CO2 footprint. Unlike the invisible threat that Covid-19 presents, during lockdown we’ve had the opportunity to see clearer skies and breath cleaner air as a direct result of the immediate reduction in airborne pollution.

Heading out of lockdown we’re bracing ourselves for a significant recession, and for many retailers the High Street was already under pressure before the pandemic. For our built environment these factors represent a complex set of challenges that are compounded as people have different opinions as to the best way forward.

In meeting this challenge, a starting point would be to ensure the case for creating greener urban centres where cars don’t dominate is better communicated and discussed at a community level. The recent measures undertaken to protect people aren’t elegant solutions, they are responses to a pandemic. However, the direction of travel towards achieving greener urban spaces was set in motion before Covid-19, and delivered with consideration they have the potential to re-energise High Streets and town centres across Wales.

Perception has an important role to play. This isn’t about closing roads, instead as an article in Forbes explained, it's a case of roads being: “Open To All Except Those In Motor Vehicles.” Of course that’s a headline grabber, and in the real world it's essential to include access for people with physical impairments, and accommodate the need for emergency services, public transport and deliveries to have access. As every location has its own characteristics, it’s critical to develop and implement plans that are specific to the built environment in question.

We can’t avoid the need for the High Street to change. If it can’t fight the internet, it has to offer a better alternative, and creating more pleasant places where people enjoy spending time (and money) is going to play an important role in achieving this. In addition, many High Streets are part of the traditional road infrastructure that can’t be changed to accommodate more vehicles, and as congestion increases driving to local shops has the potential to become less appealing, irrespective of the availability of parking.

Although this doesn’t help overcome the immediate challenges for our High Streets, and that’s where practical and immediate solutions are desperately needed. If we assume there’s very little money available to help local retailers, and for the near future (and possibly on a permanent basis) parking spaces will be restricted to provide more space for shoppers, the challenge becomes about attracting people to the High Street.

This reminds me of my grandmother who ran a very successful shop in Penarth. Her success didn’t happen by accident; instead she was innovative in the range of foods she sold, and she offered additional services including preparing orders ready for customers to collect. Her shop also had the best gossip in town, to the extent that every Saturday morning customers would queue to get in.

Of course times have changed, but I can imagine that if she was still around running her shop today she’d be galvanising her fellow retailers into taking positive action. Such positive actions to help the High Street could include:

●     Setting up a Facebook Page to tell people about what’s available in your shops, and bring it to life with stories about what’s happening on the High Street. This is also a good opportunity to encourage community engagement and run small events and competitions to give people new reasons to visit. It’s important to keep the communications upbeat; negativity isn’t what retail is about and it won’t help win new customers.

●     Take a 5 minute walk on every street feeding off your High Street and count the number of houses; this is your “On Foot” customer base. How well do you know them? How often are they walking to your shops? Have conversations on these streets, ask questions, remind people you’re there, collaborate with other shops to do a leaflet drop selling the benefits of all your shops. It’s all too easy for people to forget what’s on their own doorstep.

●     Repeat the exercise, but this time cycle for 10 or 15 minutes to identify your “Cycling” customer base and again start engaging. If your High Street seems highly car dependent at the moment, it's worth proactively promoting your shops to these potential new customers.

●     Work closer than ever with your fellow shopkeepers, and focus on ways you can improve the overall experience of shopping, eating and drinking on your High Street.

●     If you run a cafe, bar, pub or restaurant, ensure you can have a parklet with seating installed in place of the parking spaces outside your premises.

●     If you have a convenience store, replacing a nearby parking space for one car with parking for ten bikes is going to make your store even more convenient. Take it a step further and work with the council to make sure this cycle parking is secure and covered by CCTV to give it added appeal to cyclists.

●     Car free roads offer potential for a wide range of events, from the introduction of market days to small outdoor concerts, family fun days etc. This is where a good town centre manager really can add value. If having a manager for your High Street isn’t an option, work with closely with fellow retailers to devise a workable plan to start introducing activities (albeit in an appropriately socially distanced way); and if some cash is needed put the case to your council, after all they have an equally vested interest in making your High Street a success.

●     Consider a collaborative local delivery service. A cargo bike heading around your neighbourhood everyday not only helps get the goods directly to your customers but also acts as an eye catching advert for your High Street.

●     If people continue to work from home, this will create an opportunity to boost High Street retail. A lunchtime trip to a cafe or the shops is an ideal way for people working from home to take a break, grab some lunch and even meet up with friends or colleagues.

We are getting used to living with uncertainty, and even concern about the future. Our built environments will adapt, they have to in order to allow people to live and thrive in them. There is a clear direction of travel that will see our urban environment becoming less car dependent and greener.

High Streets have the opportunity to be at the heart of this transformation, although for it to succeed councils need to present their visions clearly, to explain the benefits, and fully engage with the local community. Ultimately this is a time of significant change that needs to be as collaborative as possible from the outset to ensure our High Streets can thrive into the future.