E All change in the high street if we are to survive in future
NOW I appreciate comparisons between cities and towns may be difficult, but I’m going to have a go.
I was in Manchester the other weekend for a family celebration and was hugely impressed with the place - and its lovely people for that matter.
I fully appreciate a city like Manchester is able to boast brilliant shopping experiences that are the Arndale and Trafford centres.
And they are able to attract and retain all the big names in the retail world out on the high street.
But that is because Manchester has changed. It has had to change.
What were once banks and old industrial units/warehouses have been transformed into pubs and restaurants to give them a new lease of life.
The canal sheds are now modern and hugely popular bars, clubs and eateries.
And people are actually living in the city centre slap bang in the middle of all that colour and vibrancy making residential and business/retail work together marvellously.
Back in Torbay.....
I really don’t wish to criticise I am not that sort of person, but back in Torbay we still have the same issues making survival for our town centres and business more and more difficult.
You can hear the ‘get me out of here’ cries from all around as increases in on-line shopping, the lure of the out-of-the-town malls and cheaper or free parking is taking its toll on footfall and the number of people actually spending money.
The latest setback comes from Debenhams.
There are fears over the retail giants’ stores in Devon, including their Torquay harbour side outlet, after it announced plans to close 50 branches in the next five years on the back of a £500million trading loss.
The under-threat shops have not been named.
The company says it will be axing those with the worst financial performance.
Closing 50 high street shops would put about 4,000 jobs at risk.
The group said the closures will take place over a three to five year period.
The announcement comes alongside that dire set of financial figures.
Debenhams recorded a £491.5million loss in the year to date compared to a £59million profit in 2017.
A raft of retailers including New Look, Carpetright and Mothercare have also embarked on closures programmes.
Torbay Council leader Dave Thomas is so far not aware of what the future may for the local Debenhams store.
He said: “Losing Debenhams would be a huge blow.
“We have not had any conversations about it. I am totally in the dark about it.
“It will be discussed in the mayor’s executive meetings either informally or if there is a proposal to come forward.”
He fully accepts the need to mix residential with retail in our high streets.
It is something a government funding package under a Town Deal would deliver and is being driven as we speak by the Torbay Together private/public sector part- nership.
It is also something which may be easier to achieve after an announcement as part of this week’s budget.
Cllr Thomas said: “One of the lines to come from the budget was that shops may be able to move to homes in the futures without going through the planning process.
“There was some talk about going from shops to homes. We will have to look at the detail.
“They may be relaxing planning regulations.
“You could go from office to homes without planning permission under permitted development. That was 18 months ago.
“You could go from shop to homes but you had to go through planning.”
He said a new policy like that could, for instance, benefit the top half of the town centre in Torquay.
It means developers have certainty and would not have to go through the planning process,” said Cllr Thomas.
It was also announced in the budget that business rates will be cut by a third for two years for shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes with a rateable value of £51,000 and under.
It is something picked up by John Doherty, of the local Retail Partnership and who runs Dot’s Pantry in Torquay town centre.
He says: “The business rates reduction will help the likes of us. It will drop mine by a third.
“It will impact on quite a lot of people down here. There are quite a lot of small few businesses in the town.
“It will have no impact on the bigger ones.
“It is a big saving but then at the same time the staff have been given a 40p an hour raise in the minimum wage.
“The staff deserve to have a bit more money, of course they do. “We will have to be clever next year with the menu because we will have to find this increase from somewhere.”
As for Debenhams, he says: “We have not had a conversation with Debenhams locally yet.
“I am sure everybody will be concerned.
“It would be a huge blow to the town if we lost it.
“That would be a huge hole to fill. They have a big building.
“To find somebody to fill that in the current market would be virtually impossible.”
Torbay MP Kevin Foster raised his concerns over the Debenhams closure programme in the Commons.
He is not aware of the Torquay’s store’s future or if it is under threat.
He said: “It is hard to tell absolutely what they will be doing.”
He said it was unlikely that any Debenhams recently upgraded or refurbished outlet would be on the closures list.
“There may be a challenge to Torquay but if you go around the corner to Torwood Street you have positive things happening there,” he said.
He added: “In the budget there was also good news in terms of business rates. A lot of places will see benefit from that.
“There will also be more fairness by ensuring the on-line giants pay a fairer amount of tax.”
He too was fully supportive of residential development in the centre of both Torquay and Paignton being key to the future.
“There is a lot to be said about good quality accommodation,” he said.
Kevin added residential use, including student accommodation, had transformed cities Manchester and Coventry.
There may be also a need for the use of compulsory purchase orders against land owners just sitting on derelict but potential development sites waiting for ‘unrealistic’ prices.
And he said the changes needed to make our high streets fit for the future could be the biggest seen since the redevelopment needed at the end of World War Two.
Let’s hope a Debenhams Torquay is part of that future...
And let’s hope we can secure that Town Deal which would secure a new future and the dawn of a new era for all of us.
A more prosperous future for all of us.