THE High street is dead. Long live the high street? If my own town of Barnsley is anything to go by, something is stirring. It’s the spirit of entrepreneurship undeterred by anti-social problems, high business rates and an economic and retail climate which often seems deeply unfavourable to the sole trader.
I’m noticing it in Barnsley, but I’ve also spotted evidence in other parts of the region, including Scarborough and Huddersfield. There are a growing number of individuals bucking the gloomy trend and setting up cafes, bars, restaurants and shops and salons offering personal services such as beauty treatments and barber shops.
Old pubs have been made over into glossy gin bars; empty units turned into ice cream parlours and pizza cafes; a semi-derelict nightclub is about to become a grill and, on the Victorian Arcade, there’s a fashion retailer offering personal shopping with a new salon opening nearby offering non-surgical cosmetic procedures.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about what town centres should actually be for. I’ve talked to many experts in the field, who have come up with lots of suggestions, including turning empty shops into office space or housing.
However, I have to say, I’ve never spoken to a single one who thought that the easy availability of a mani-pedi might offer the solution.
How have so many people missed the point for so long? We can buy everything from a wedding dress to a lawnmower from the internet, but we can’t get our nails done or take our children out for an ice-cream tea in a virtual world. It’s becoming all about the experience, delivered with excellent customer service.
Interestingly, it’s reported that the £5m masterplan for Huddersfield town centre unveiled recently is geared towards a new future for the town “where retail is less of a focus”. Instead, the aim is to improve the “public realm” so that people actually enjoy just hanging out and admiring the exemplary Victorian architecture.
Let’s look at the wider picture, and apologies for the quick snapshot. If we could wind the clock back a little more than a decade, we would see hugely ambitious plans being made to redevelop many of our Northern towns and cities, led by local political leaders and regeneration and retail experts.
Then came the financial meltdown of 2008 and many of these plans fell into ruin. Even in well-established cities such as Leeds, skyscrapers went unbuilt and infrastructure projects, such as improvements to the area south of the train station in the city centre, stalled.
But the world has changed since then. For instance, I can remember when the original regeneration masterplan for Barnsley was announced. A major department store was proposed as the cornerstone of retail development. No one argued or even questioned it.
And now look. BHS is no more; Littlewoods a dim and distant memory; House of Fraser has been bought by Sports Direct and Debenhams is hanging onto its once-starry place in the retail firmament for grim death.
The point is this. The world has moved on, shopping habits have evolved irrevocably and people simply cannot be cajoled to buy things if they don’t want to. The rising cost of living and the speed at which the internet have wrought changes on the retail landscape were unimaginable 10 years ago.
We’re having a new 20,000 sq ft Next fashion store in Barnsley as part of the £130m redevelopment of the town centre, that much is confirmed. However, I’d go so far as to say that I could imagine a spaceship landing on Cheapside before a major new department store arrives.
Put simply, there would be no point. This way of shopping has fallen out of favour, going the same way as the one big weekly supermarket shop at a giant out-of-town superstore.
Speaking of supermarkets, you may have noticed that Tesco is rolling out Jack’s, a new chain of budget stores designed to challenge thriving discounters Aldi and Lidl. The first Jack’s opened in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire, last week, followed swiftly by one in Immingham, North East Lincolnshire. None have been announced for Yorkshire as yet, but it would seem that small is once again beautiful. One old lady interviewed on television said it was “shopping the way it used to be”.
This is heartening. However, instead of bemoaning the loss of High Street behemoths, it’s time we started to turn that clock forward. It is clear from the activity in Barnsley town centre that there is no shortage of individuals prepared to invest heart and soul into businesses which offer what people want. Local councils and those in charge of public transport must respond to this with plans and provisions which bring more customers, literally, to market.
Meanwhile, it’s over to us. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And nowhere is this more relevant than in our town centres. They may not offer everything you need, but they are increasingly likely to offer a few things you want.