So, Saturday 20th February 2015 GW Franks of Wisbech finally closed their doors after 107 years. A pork butcher of some local renown, selling some final local produce of black pudding, haslet and pies. It is a cause of disappointment to loyal customers, but it also is a blow to those who still yearn for a revival of our market towns. This was an “anchor” store and for some – myself included – it was sometimes the only reason I would set off to town on a Saturday morning. Perhaps also, which many will not perhaps take much notice or perhaps attach much importance – but where now do we buy our haslet? This is a symbol of what we are losing, slowly, our heritage is being buried – we are slowly being lost to mediocrity.
There has never be an inevitability that the market town will die. Many an example of successful towns and aspiring city centre high streets demonstrate that there is success where there is innovation, energy and leadership. What is certain is that if there is not the political leadership, and the support of the wider community, then those with the motivation and funds will succeed. Of course, there is an inference that politicians are solely inept, in fact many must support the strategy for it to progress.
This is not a game; those organisations investing large sums of money will want to maximise their return. It would be unusual for any of these concerns to have a plan which combines or compliments existing commercial operations, or unless their is a clear political direction to provide a degree of co-operation or support.
The town centre has to adapt. The best experiences which I have had are towns which celebrate their heritage but which make good use of technology, and ensure that there is also a good blend of art and culture. There is a “tipping point” whereby the so-called big shops have gone from the centre, and I would argue it is simply not viable to try to retrieve this but rather look to take advantage of a new set of opportunities. But there is need for significant investment in infrastructure including a wholesale review of the local road network. The spasmodic commercial developments encircling the town has created a continuous loop of traffic delays on every route – even the road markings have not been changed to take account of vehicle access for some of the developments. I have written elsewhere in more detail on the various planning failures which are creating social problems and hampering sustainable economic growth, specifically discouraging the investment for new businesses.
It is the rise of the supermarket, and now the “out of town”commercial centres, which arguably has taken the joy out of shopping (if it ever existed). There is an opportunity to take the family back to the small shop if you make it attractive with good products, excellent service, and the eupherial experience. The intent is not to end the supermarket trip but rather leave them to the essentials, make the indy shops and markets the venue for the weekly shop.
It is with despair and an absolute lack of imagination that any Council should actively pursue the development of shopping centres without proper consideration or account on existing town centres. The potential loss of businesses by falling footfall is not compensated by the creation of what are largely part-time and low paid jobs in megastores. For a market town there is simply not the population to sustain large numbers of such jobs, the end result is that many people will travel from outside the area for the jobs and then only spend money in the same shops.
The decline of Wisbech town centre is already notable. The proliferation of bookmakers, money shops and charity shops points one sad way. This is no doubt largely due to the fact that there are three large supermarkets outside of the town centre, and now a fourth larger development has been built (and although several units have remained empty for several months thus proving the failure of the strategy) the situation is critical. I would never say “last chance” but certainly we are close to a line. It is well that some Indy traders are standing up, and a couple more starting out, but as I have argued previously there is a need for a plan and strong political leadership. We cannot do “the same as before but better” we have to do differently. There must be a distinct, local and attractive destination where we shop, meet and have fun too. Neither should future strategy rest with lottery bids or other short-lived initiatives – no matter how well intentioned unless the strategy for the town centres are integral to the macro economic policy it will lead to stagnation and ultimately decline.
It is not by accident that the so-called “super” markets do everything they can to emulate what a market town used to look and feel like. Why are we so gullible to fall for this when we still have the real thing? The important message I’m seeking to impress is that we have a free will to exercise, and that includes where you buy your meat, fish and fork handles (or four candles). This is not a tirade against modernity or progress. There will be plenty of suitable locations for shopping malls, for cinema multiplexes etc but I don’t agree they should be in market towns. Although many of the developments in place or being introduced were signed off before I got involved in local politics I remain disappointed that voters have not been convinced or perhaps motivated sufficiently to make change. But we are all responsible for the town we live in – politicians are elected and what you see before you now has taken 20 years to create.
The community continue to have the a say in what happens next, as they have done in the lead up to where we are. The decisions made by Councils have been repeatedly endorsed at elections (including those who have not voted and thereby allowed incumbants to prosper), and reinforced by the way in which we shop. Nothing has happened by accident, all by design, and I just ask that people now take responsibility for what will happen next. The sign posts are clear, the re-designation of shops for dwelling, the lack of proper investment in roads which are deepening the traffic and delays around the “hub” and now an open discussion to introduce parking charges – none of this supports the town or small business.
We have a truly wonderful town, let’s use it, and let’s celebrate it. If you don’t like what is happening then stand up, step forward….and shout if you wish….but don’t sleep through it!