Friday, 3 July 2015

Challenges for the Modern Town Centre

Over the course of the General Election campaign in Llanelli (where I was the Lib Dem candidate), I was asked about the issue and challenge of the Town Centre. This was, I'm sure, partly related to stories like this one suggesting that Llanelli was the 'second worst' town centre in the UK. Now that is certainly more than a little bit on the harsh side, I think, but but Llanelli, like other towns in South Wales and across the UK as a whole, definitely has some challenges to come to terms with in the modern world. I did make some inevitably brief press comments about Llanelli having to ensure that any available development money is spent wisely, and about the town needing to find its own 'USP' (Unique Selling Point), and I think that the same is very much true for all of our towns and cities. Since I have now joined the ranks of the 'bloggers', I'd now like to take the opportunity to expand a little on what I meant by that.

Firstly, we have to look back, I think, and understand a little of the process of urbanisation that created our towns as the retail centres for their areas. Without delving too far into the history books, the relevant part of the process is really a fairly simple one - in essence, people needed to buy and sell goods in a place they could get to with the transport they had. As towns grew through the Industrial Revolution, they had an increasing number of people who needed that retail service increasingly, since they no longer worked on farms and/or grew their own food to the same extent. As the market for luxuries became more common through the 20th Century, the retail sections of towns expanded in their size and scope - what had perhaps at one time been 'market towns' and/or 'industrial towns' became also increasingly 'shopping centres'. Getting any further than the town they were in, or the town most local to them, was still a massive task, so that is where they went - the towns thrived as centres of local retail for the people of the surrounding area, and expanded their capacity for that accordingly. That's all pretty straightforward.

However, things have changed a great deal in the last half century or so. Transport progressively became so commonly accessible, fast and hassle-free that that need for 'local towns for local people' (no, don't read that in a 'League of Gentlemen' voice in your mind - you know that's not what I mean!) has all but disappeared from the equation. The growth of the out of town shopping centre, with its easy and free parking facilities, really has decimated our town centres. People don't have to go to their local town, they can go to any town or city in the area to get the shopping and/or visiting experience that they want at any time. If they are living in, or near, Llanelli, or Neath, or Port Talbot, they can easily go to Swansea, or Cardiff - those towns will never compete on pure shopping terms with their larger neighbours. We can't turn the clock back, so how do we move forward in a way that will 'bring people back into town'?

Well the first thing, I would say, is to forget that idea of 'bringing people back' altogether. We won't. We can't. It ain't going to happen. Shopping habits have changed, and barring some kind of cataclysm that removes our ability to drive they are never remotely likely to change back. We can't turn the clock back on transport, and we can't wind it back to a time before 'out of town shopping' either. So who is going to use our towns now, if not those local people who used to?

Town centres are now, I think, really going to have to offer something different and distinctive to attract people from a wider area, probably on a more occasional basis, rather than relying on local people habitually doing their shopping 'in town' instead of at the big supermarket or superstore. It requires a complete change in thinking on the part of everyone involved. No longer is it enough to 'refurbish' and 'make it look nice', or just tinker around the edges with parking charges and the like - instead it has to be 'unique' and 'distinctive', and that is something that many (most, in fact) of our town centres seem to be largely failing to do.

Think of it this way - if you stand in the centre of your local town, wherever that might be, how do you know where you are? OK, pretend that it's unfamiliar - what is screaming that town's identity to you? Indeed, as an example, how would you know which town has its pavement pictured in this blog?! What makes it 'different' from the next town in the area, or a town in a different area? If I stand in Llanelli, or Neath, or Port Talbot, or Bridgend, or wherever, how does it 'feel'? What is it's 'identity'? When I leave, what is the atmosphere and experience offering that is going to make me think 'I have to go back there'? What is going to make me tell my friends 'you should go and visit that town - it's great'?

It's about much more than just putting in a nice new pavement that is just the same as the nice new pavement in half of the other towns in the region. Currently, Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend and Llanelli (for example) have generally pretty similar styles and layouts of paving, broadly speaking. Why? It's quite nice paving, of course, where it has been recently refurbished, but it's all pretty much the same kind of paving as everyone else has (yes, I know about such things costing money, and 'different' things possibly costing more money, but I also know about the idea of 'investment'!). It's about much more than 'having some good shops', too. It has to be a whole coherent plan of making a town scream its identity at the visitor in every way that it can - through civic 'installations', aesthetics, atmospherics and also distinctive businesses - it needs everyone to buy into the whole process and work together.

Of course, it takes money, but there are sources of money available (even if they are never enough!), and wise investment brings visitors that bring and spend money to enable further investment - it's about more than that, though. There has to be a whole planning process involved, and a holistic approach that involves local people, businesses, councils, elected representatives, etc., etc., all working together towards the same goal of giving the town a specific and identifiable identity to attract visitors (and no, I certainly don't mean a 'corporate identity' for the road signs, purchased at great expense from some London consultancy firm!), and then progressively building on that and developing the town on that basis. It doesn't have to be 'cheesy' or 'tacky', obviously, and indeed it's far better if it isn't! It just needs to offer something 'unique' (for that area, at least) in terms of visitor/customer experience.

To put it another way, in order to thrive in the modern world of easy transport, every town has to find its own 'niche'. There is no longer any point in any town just trying to by 'the local town', or 'a nice town' - it has to be a 'something' town to attract people, decide what that 'something' is going to be, and present it in an appealing manner that brings people in and keeps them coming back whenever they want that thing that the town is offering. It's about presenting that 'something' to make visiting that town a unique experience, encouraging businesses that use and enhance that 'something' in the way that they operate, enhancing that 'something' with every new development (private or public), and so on.

Let's take an example, if a slightly odd one that isn't necessarily directly comparable to our former industrial towns in particular - the town of Hay-on-Wye is world famous, and visited by huge numbers of people from lots of different places every year. Why is that? Is it because it's the 'local town'? Clearly not! Is it because it's a 'nice town'? Well it is a nice town, but that's not primarily why people go there (and being a 'nice town' is very much easier when you are attracting lots of business, of course - a successful 'niche' naturally attracts supporting businesses to offer all the things that visitors want). It is because it has a long-defined and easily identifiable (when you set foot in the place) 'niche'. It's that 'book town' - it's full of second hand book shops, has a major literature festival to compliment that, and so on - you can't miss that as soon as you open your eyes in any street in the town. People go there specifically for that identity, go away thinking that they want to come back, and tell their friends that going there is an experience that they should try.

Now I'm not suggesting that Port Talbot or Neath or Llanelli suddenly try to become book towns or whatever, of course, but they have to find some kind of 'niche' for themselves that sets them apart from their neighbours in some way, so that people want to visit to get/experience that particular 'thing'. They can't do that in isolation, all making similar decisions, because that just makes them direct competition for each other, and they will all lose out especially since they have the much larger settlement of Swansea between them (and Cardiff not far away, in modern transport terms). So what can each of them do to attract, for example, those Swansea (and even Cardiff) people to come to their town from time to time? They each have to offer something that is different from just being 'a town' (since they will never compete successfully on that score in pure shopping terms with Swansea itself), and different from each other. They all have to work together to each find their own 'niche' - that is where their new 'market' for customers and visitors is, not the 'captive audience' it used to be in the immediate local area.

Now I don't pretend to know what the right niche for each (or any!) of those towns is - that's something they need to decide for themselves. They can look at different ideas of food, or arts, or sports, or music, or particular areas of business, or heritage, or whatever. It's up to them to identify what does, or can, make their town 'special', and 'different' from their neighbours, respecting at the same time that they need to work together to make sure they are not all trying to be 'special' in the same way.We need to develop much greater diversity among our towns.

There's not much point, for example, in Neath having a 'food festival' and a particular type of  'music festival' over the summer to attract business from the whole area if Llanelli is doing exactly the same things a week or so later - it will divide the local market for each event (since lots of people will inevitably choose to go to one or the other), and BOTH will lose out in terms of the success of their events. Why not work together, and have all of the music in one place and all of the food in the other? Why not make one a 'music town' and the other a 'food town', and build the atmosphere and business up for each on that basis? OK, that's far too simplistic an example to work effectively, but the principle is a fairly simple one - the towns of a region have to understand that they are not wanting to be in direct competition with each other, but that they should actually do things to complement each other, knowing that people will visit one town one week and the other next week (or the people interested in one thing will go to one place, and those interested in the other will go to the other, and from a wider area than their traditional 'home town' locality).

At the moment, across South Wales (and beyond) we have virtually 'identikit' towns, all trying to do pretty much the same thing as each other in the same ways as each other in the same kind of ways. I think they are very often kind of missing the point that they are trying to attract local business that no longer exists for them, while also missing the point that they are now all directly competing with each other in a way that they should all be trying to avoid doing. All of our towns are struggling to attract business and visitors. I think perhaps its time for them to realise that the world has changed, and to begin to form their developments in a way that meets the needs and opportunities of the 21st century. In my opinion, in the modern world each and every town now needs to work much harder to find, and build on, their own individual identity. I don't think it's anywhere near impossible to do successfully (though of course it will be a challenge), but I do think we all need to understand that that is what needs to be done.

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