BLAME the major retailers, who choose to take their shiny new department stores elsewhere.
Blame the greedy landlords who set commercial rents so high that few businesses can afford them.
Cast scathing comment on those shoppers who choose to ignore their local town centre in favour of the mega-mall along the motorway.
Come up with whole (and multi-million pound expensive) masterplans to regenerate a certain location, enticing in new outlets, restaurants and cinemas to set up shop.
Do what you like, but it will all come to nothing if the problem which causes the biggest blight on our beleaguered national High Street is not tackled – the people.
Sorry if this sounds blunt – and I am certainly no snob – but it stares me in the face every time I go into town. And unfortunately, Barnsley is no exception to this rule.
Countless town centres across our region, and up and down the country, are affected by similar problems. Ask anyone in Rotherham, for example, or Ashford in Kent, close to where my sister lives.
She tells some awful tales of harassment and pick-pocketing. It’s an awful indictment of the 21st-century that law-abiding families are put off shopping locally because they are afraid of what they might find.
Sad to say, though, it does seem as if these days my home town has more than its fair share of drug-users, drunks and individuals shouting, swearing and generally behaving in as disruptive a manner as is humanly possible. In order to tackle this, a dedicated team created specifically to deal with anti-social behaviour in the town centre – in particular around the faded Victorian splendour of Peel Square – will use “every tool and method” in the book to stamp out the issues which are affecting trade.
It is headed by PC Craig Sumpter, who says that “The battle for Barnsley” has begun. If his words sound harsh and belligerent, that’s exactly what they need to be.
It is no news to anyone in Barnsley that decent, law-abiding families and individuals have started to avoid the town centre because they are afraid. It’s sad but true that just walking along the street, you’re likely to witness couples screeching foul language at each other, drugs being traded and undesirable individuals choosing to urinate in the street.
With a situation like that, is it any wonder that every shopkeeper and market stallholder you speak to is in despair? With customers wary of being able to browse and feel safe, many independent retailers are struggling to make even enough to cover rent and bills, never mind enough to turn a profit.
When fancy “retail gurus” like Mary Portas are drafted in to give these plucky business-owners the benefit of their worldly wisdom, do these visitors from another planet ever look beyond the shop window?
It’s about time they did. In fact, it is about time everyone who cares about the survival of our town centres took the widest view possible. We can’t just blame declining footfall on a struggling retail offer which can’t compete with the supermarkets or shopping malls. It’s not fair to throw scorn on the efforts of local councils to bring in a new generation of shoppers with special town centre events and “fun days” for the family. If Barnsley is anything to go by, there are always far more naysayers than supporters of such initiatives.
I’m glad though that we are leading the way in making a difference. That’s why it’s good news for the town that PC Sumpter is taking no prisoners. It is crucial that the police are allowed to arrest, charge and proceed to prosecution those who break the law. This includes people who are engaging in drug-dealing, who stagger out of pubs causing a disturbance of the peace, or end up brawling in the street. This hard stance not only cracks down on wrongdoers, it sets an example to others who might think that it is acceptable to behave like animals in public.
However, the police can only go so far. What is also needed is a joined-up approach from other services, in particular the local councils. In Barnsley, we have town centre patrols whose job it is to come down hard on generalised anti-social behaviour, including littering. Dropping a cigarette end, for example, will result in a fine of £50. Those who rail against this draconian stance only incriminate themselves. That the officials who hand over fines wear body cameras to ensure that every detail is on record, and to ensure ID information is not falsified by the person littering, only highlights the severity of the problem.
If decent, law-abiding people like us continue to turn our backs, we are giving into those whose only aim in life is to cause trouble. This is where people like you and me come in. We have to brave it and continue to use our town centres for the purpose for which they have always been intended; to shop, to socialise, to visit special events, and to take our children, in order to prove to them that not everything can be bought off the internet.