Saturday, 10 July 2010

Bringing new life to our towns

Earlier today I opened a new shop in Redruth for Rodda and Hocking, the conservatory specialists who also have a shop in Cross Street, Camborne. They have done a fantastic job fitting out the shop and this is exactly the sort of organic change we need to see in our town centres.

I have always thought we need to focus on measures that will bring new life to our towns and, earlier this year I organised a mini conference on the subject. It sought to answer the question, "How do we bring new prosperity to our towns?"

I am conscious that all too often such events are attended by councillors and advisers, Business Links and other employed experts, but not by the hard pressed business people who have to man the shop because they can't afford the staff cover that would allow them to attend.

So to make sure their views were represented, I spent two days walking through Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, going in to shops and talking to as many entrepreneurs as possible. It was an eye opener.

The first thing I found is that "regeneration" was seen as a dirty word by some. There is a reason for this which we need to recognise. Too often in the past, town centre regeneration has been associated with "townscape" issues: one way systems, pedestrianisation, new pavements, resurfacing car parks. In practice, work like that can be incredibly disruptive in the short term for businesses trying to build a customer base and we all know it’s a lot easier to lose customers than to gain them.

So as we discuss ways to increase the number of people visiting our towns we should apply a clear principle of "first, do no harm." Any disruptive work must be done in the fastest possible time and we must really test to destruction the value we expect to get from changes to urban layout.

My own view is that having one or two destination retailers that make towns a place people will make the effort to visit and thereby lift the tide for all traders is the single most important objective we should have. It is why I think the prospect of a JD Wetherspoon pub in Camborne creates a lot of new potential.

There were two other issues that came up in my meetings with retailers. The first was business rates. I came across a number of good businesses who took a real pride in what they did and their work added to the overall offering of the town but they were struggling to make ends meet. I think this is particularly sad in the case of new businesses starting out because there is a danger that morale can fall quickly. So I am keen to explore ways of cushioning such businesses against business rates in the early years.

Secondly, we cannot ignore the importance of parking. There is a reason why many major players moved out of town. They have the space to offer free car parking. The reality is that people want to be able to park their car, fill it with stuff and drive home. We should not side step this issue. I have seen some argue that free car parking has not helped towns where it has been piloted. It won't on its own but I do believe it could have an important role to play alongside other measures and we should look at how this might be made possible.