FSB Wales has launched a major new initiative calling for commitment to new thinking on how we deliver sustainable, long-term solutions for our Welsh towns.
FSB has joined up with Llanelli-based consultancy The Means to launch The Future of Our Welsh Towns after undertaking a detailed look at four Welsh towns as well as interviewing over 80 businesses and stakeholders in towns across the country. The four ‘deep-dive’ towns which hosted focus groups and other interviews were Maesteg, Caernarfon, Haverfordwest and Aberystwyth.
Welsh towns and high streets are subject to increasing pressures. Following a survey of FSB members and of businesses and stakeholders across the country, some of the top issues identified included the threat of online retailing, empty shops, business rates and out-of-town development.
Three ‘megatrends’ were also identified, which were found to affect towns across the country:
- Social and demographic change
- Urbanisation to cities and clustering
- Technological breakthroughs and changes in consumption patterns
40% of the Welsh population live in small towns of less than 20,000 people, and a significant proportion of the day-to-day economy in Wales takes place in towns. Towns are where things are made, bought and sold or where we go to consume our leisure and public services. Whilst supporting retail businesses in these towns, we also need to look more widely at what the future of these towns could be.
Commenting, FSB Wales Policy Chair, Ben Francis, said:
“This research comes at a critical time for our Welsh towns. Every week we hear of shops closing down and decreased footfall, and just last week it was reported that over 200 UK shopping centres are at risk. We are all aware of pressures facing even the bigger stores such as Debenhams, Maplin and House of Fraser. We must get ahead of the conversation about how to ensure that our towns and high streets have sustainable futures ahead of them.
“Ensuring the health of our towns must be seen as an economic imperative for us all in the coming years.”
FSB has made a number of key recommendations in order to tackle the issues faced by businesses and to contribute to thriving and successful towns and high streets. FSB recommends that towns explore employing Digital Town Centre Managers and the development of town centre strategies for every town in Wales. This would collate the efforts of individual businesses into one town offer, and ensure that it remains regularly updated.
Furthermore, following the UK Government budget, FSB has called on Welsh Government to commit to implement a new Future of Welsh Towns Fund, as well as significant business rates relief for businesses which are increasingly finding the current climate challenging.
Ben Francis commented:
“At FSB, we have written to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Mark Drakeford, calling on Welsh Government to use the funding that will flow from the Chancellor’s announcement in order to create a Future of Welsh Towns Fund. We estimate that the Barnett consequential elements of this for Wales to be approximately £33.75million over 5 years for the high streets fund and £22.5million per year over two years for the business rates element.
“This fund can be used to answer some of the increasingly complex but significant questions that smaller firms are facing, as well as stimulating new thinking and approaches for our local economies.
“The key here is that we want to provoke a new conversation based on these trends, distinctive features and what we want our towns to be. Whilst we’ve welcomed the city deals, we need an equally significant dialogue about our towns across Wales that builds even stronger links between businesses, local authorities and Welsh Government, and we will be challenging government at all levels to step up to this conversation.”