There is more to Scun­thorpe than ‘Skint’

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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’

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