How Driffield town centre reversed decline and reduced empty shops thanks to vouchers, street cleaning and hanging baskets

When the pandemic hit, an East Riding town council was under no illusion about the damage it could cause the high street.

Independent businesses in Driffield answered a call to action - with impressive results.

Despite the events of the last 18 months, the town centre’s vacancy rate has fallen from 14.9 per cent in December 2020 to 10.6 per cent in July.

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And town clerk Claire Binnington said she knows of only one empty shop in the High Street, with all the rest soon to be let.

Driffield's "umbrella plaza" has been a big success

She believes their success is down to independents getting together, help with getting funding - and most importantly locals realising what they have on their doorstep, linked with a reluctance to travel far from home.

She said: "It really started in October 2020 when I delivered a letter to every independent business asking them to come together to see what we could do to ensure the survival of the town centre - and out of 180, I had 10 responses."

While businesses had in the past been reluctant to come to meetings after shutting shop for the day, those that did sign up were happy to meet on Zoom with a glass of wine, and a town centre steering group was set up last October.

They came up with ideas - everything from a “discover Driffield” voucher scheme, to making the place as welcoming as possible - including bringing back the traditional street cleaner.

There was bunting, free hanging baskets for businesses and steering group member Maggie Lynch came up with the idea of transforming Market Place by hanging dozens of brightly-coloured umbrellas overhead.

The “magic ingredient”, Mrs Binnington added, was the successful bids for money made by their external funding officer Fiona Turner.

The “umbrella plaza” did the trick, she said: “It lifted people’s spirits. We have had a lot of picnic tables with parasols as well so people can sit and eat and have takeaway coffees and chat.

"I just can’t believe how successful it had been. I think the pandemic made a lot of people appreciate their town centres on their door step and they are also reluctant to travel in case of getting Covid. It makes people realise what is under their noses.

“Shopping in Driffield, now I am told, is a pleasant experience.”

Leo Salerno opened Roberto Gelato in June and has been surprised how well it has gone.

He said: “We have lots of people coming from Scarborough and Hull. We thought it could take a year or two, but we have been working nearly like our shop in York that started in 2015.

“We opened from the beginning on Sundays, it wasn’t too busy, but when the umbrella plaza opened we had people coming in because of the music.

"Families want to have time on Sunday and there's not many things open."

Andy Rafter, who owns the award-winning greengrocer and deli Rafters, said the town - which “always was a poor relation to Beverley and Bridlington” had “come out punching”.

He said: "We've been in an industry that's come to the front. We are offering a service people needed. The supermarkets couldn't service rural areas during the pandemic. People had no alternative but to use independents and smaller businesses.

"It has left us in a better position than we were before the pandemic with extra customers we've managed to pick up and retain.

"We have greengrocers, butchers and bakers (in Driffield) You have to look hard to find these places on most high streets.

"People come in and say: 'This is how we used to shop, this is how we want to shop."