There is more to Scunthorpe than ‘Skint’
I’m guessing most nominations for High Street of the Year will be picturesque, thriving market towns with artisan bakers and burgeoning hanging baskets, but I’m going out on a limb to nominate a real outsider. It’s not that pretty, it’s not currently very accessible since a landslide cut off the rail link, and it gets a bad press courtesy of Channel 4’s Skint series. But let’s hear it for Scunthorpe.
Drive in one way and you gaze on the towering steelworks, and think about the decline of British manufacturing and the lack of a long-term political solution for areas like this. Come from the other side of town, though, and it’s beautiful countryside with large town houses followed by a range of food and takeaway shops from around the world that London’s trendy Greenwich Market would be proud to offer.
Walk around the town and, yes, you notice there are a lot of empty units, but you also see that it’s clean and, with a lick of paint, many of the older shops would resemble somewhere more like prosperous commuter-belt Sevenoaks. People clearly care about Scunthorpe.
As a recent recruit to the British Retail Consortium, the body that represents the retail industry in Britain, I’ve been out and about from Enfield to Leeds visiting fantastic flagship stores and meeting big retail leaders. But I also see and hear small retailers talk passionately about where they live and run their businesses. The best thing about Scunthorpe is that its local retailers are so full of commitment to their high street that they keep coming up with new suggestions and schemes for revitalising the town centre.
Local shop owner Des Comerford, Scunthorpe born and bred, shows me around on a chilly late summer morning. When he’s not running his business, he can be found playing charity football matches and organising local meetings, although he likes to be hands-on behind the counter on Saturdays.
Fallen Hero, Des’s flagship store, sells men’s clothing. It brings young people to the centre of Scunthorpe. And Des has an online offering that sells jeans as far afield as Ethiopia.
Fallen Hero is an independent giving the giants a run for their money. Its success was recently recognised by an award from Drapers magazine. But the way Des and other Scunthorpe independents such as Hair at Salvatore, Coe & Co Fine Jewellery, and Lullaby’s Baby Den see it, their businesses face an unequal battle because town centre planning has taken second place to the development of out-of-town shopping facilities.
They welcome the arrival of new stores and jobs at the nearby retail park because they are encouraged that the big retailers see a future in Scunthorpe. Their problem, though, is that they can’t spot a far-sighted vision for retail in the whole town from the local council, which is reaping the financial benefits of penalty parking charges on the high street (compared with free parking in the retail park), a state of affairs that has sparked a heated debate in the Scunthorpe Telegraph about parking fines being a local government “cash cow”.
On the positive side, Scunthorpe retailers are full of new ideas to regenerate their town centre – a new bowling alley, a piazza, better parking and new flats. All have been dismissed by the council. And if you even start on the thorny issue of business rates, people sigh and express incredulity that the whole system is so short-sighted.
As we take a walk around the town, Des points out the tiny Dickensian premises he started out in, and where he bought his first suit, brown and pinstriped, in the late Seventies. Then we stroll over to where he opened his first shop, Dee Jays. Both now stand empty.
Next we go into The Foundry Shopping Centre – a yellow-brick, low-rise cruciform affair that sits alongside the high street. Its residents include familiar names – Boots, WH Smith, Specsavers and Iceland, as well as charity shops for the British Heart Foundation and Age UK. It’s here that we bump into Dean and Claire, who feature in the Channel 4 series Skint.
This is a reality show about being unemployed with little prospect of getting another job. Dean was laid off from the steelworks after years of hard graft, but it’s interesting to see on screen how he tackles the problems of providing for a family as if it were his day job, which I suppose it is. Other characters have such a range of addictions and misuse problems that the idea of working isn’t on the agenda. They aren’t even any good at shoplifting, and I spot Asbo notices on a couple of shopfronts as if to prove it.
Des says that Scunthorpe locals are furious about the series because it only shows a tiny fraction of life in the town. He contrasts the picture it paints with retailers’ support for local schools and community sport – the sort of topics that don’t lend themselves to peak-time television.
The queue at Costa is out of the door, so over coffee in the BHS café we talk about Scunthorpe’s future. Des is adamant that local retailers will keep coming back to the council with proposals for regeneration because their businesses will die if they don’t. They are throwing themselves into a Keep Scunthorpe Alive campaign and are looking to engage the support of local politicians.
If passion, creativity and determination count for anything in High Street of the Year, Scunthorpe should definitely be a contender.
Amanda Callaghan is corporate affairs director at the British Retail Consortium
Hard times: Dean and Claire Bell and their family appear on C4’s ‘Skint’