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Issue 344 – The future of Britain’s high street – and Frome leads the way

RETAIL guru Mary Portas has released her independent review into the future of England’s high streets – and it looks like Frome is ahead of the game.
In June, when the government commissioned Mary Portas to undertake the review, a Frome Times initiative asked key figures in the town what they thought of the state of Frome’s high street.
With Frome’s lively mix of independent retail shops and businesses – in stark contrast to the economic gloom across the country – local people suggested Mary Portas should take a look at how successful the town has been at fighting the recession.
And in fact, Mary Portas was spotted browsing the town’s shops in October, tweeting to followers that she was “In Frome looking at their great independent shops.”

Community hub

Mary Portas’ review, which was published in December, envisions the country’s high streets as the “hub of the community”, thriving with both economic and community life. She says, “My vision for the future of high streets is of multifunctional and social places which offer a clear and compelling purpose and experience that’s not available elsewhere, and which meets the interests and needs of the local people.”
Her recommendations include creating a “town team” – a group of different stakeholders who make up a visionary, strategic, and strong operational management team; removing unnecessary regulations to encourage more markets while introducing a national market day to encourage new traders; considering whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers; and bringing back controlled free parking.

Strategic plan

Town Mayor, cllr Nick White said, “Speaking personally, I welcome the report. I have always believed that town centres should be the focal hub of any community. The headlong rush into developing soulless, architecturally bankrupt, car dependent, out-of-town shopping centres has been a huge nationwide mistake, up there with the ‘60s drive to put all social housing into high rise flats.
“Anything that can be done to encourage footfall back into town centres should be welcomed. Many of the recommendations in this report are already in Frome Town Council’s strategic plan. The encouragement of more market traders to take stalls in the Frome markets is to be encouraged, with a hope that we can restore the Wednesday and Saturday markets to their former glory.
“We have a delightful and picturesque town centre and we hope to embellish it to make Frome a destination shopping centre. Remember we already have the infrastructure to support shopping in Frome with many pubs, cafes and restaurants, which also provide a night-time economy that the out-of-town shops don’t have.”

Neil Howlett, president of Frome & District Chamber of Commerce, also welcomed the Portas review. “We are encouraged that Frome is ahead of the game and is already doing many of the things that Mary Portas recommends,” he said.

Mix of shops

“If the High Street has a future anywhere, it has a future in Frome. We have already seen how the Artisan Market brings people into town and the mix of interesting shops and cafes make the town centre a good place to visit. The Chamber of Commerce has been running a retail group which deals with town centre issues, and we look forward to working with the proposed town centre manager.
“On the downside, we have found it much more difficult to get commitments and engagement from national organisations. We find it hard to understand why there are empty shops that landlords don’t seem to want to rent, when I regularly get enquiries about trying to rent them.”
“We look forward to working with Frome Town Council and Mendip District Council on putting the proposals in the Portas review into effect to make Frome town centre even better.”
MC2, the independent telescope shop in Catherine Street, says that while some of the suggestions in the Portas review have merit, care must be taken not to change what already works in Frome. “Frome works fairly well as it is, so we don’t want to lose that.
“The whole concept of mixed use – shops plus other recreational and community uses – is a good one. Frome needs to feel like an evolved village rather than something off a planner’s table. It needs the freedom to evolve, therefore as little interference from councils and other groups and the fewest charges as possible.” They add that business rates do need more local input, and that any incentives for markets would need to keep a level playing field between shops and stalls.

Saxonvale: in light of the report

Mayor Nick White points out, “This report is particularly well timed for Frome with the Saxonvale debate at the forefront of many residents’ minds.” Both Keep Frome Local and Frome For All have welcomed the report’s vision, but have different views on how supermarkets may or may not help.
Keep Frome Local, who are campaigning against a large town centre supermarket say, “Keep Frome Local strongly welcomes Mary Portas’ report with its vision of town centres as vibrant places where people meet, play and shop. We welcome her recognition of the threat which supermarkets pose to high streets as they move not only into white goods and other electricals but also into providing services such as pharmacies, opticians and even estate agency.
“In regards to the St James Investments plans for Saxonvale one paragraph in her report says it all about the impact of supermarkets: ‘we are burying our heads in the sand about the economic and social impacts. A pound spent in a retailer with a localised supply chain that employs local people has far greater domestic economic impact than a pound spent in a supermarket or national chain. What’s more, out-of -town developments are often presented as major new sources of employment, but we need to recognise that this ‘job creation’ is often just job displacement.’
“Frome already exhibits much of Mary’s vision for the future; its many community events, independent retailers, the St Catherine’s artisan market and the plans of the town council and Frome Development CIC to regenerate the weekly markets. The town council already actively manages the town centre and should take encouragement from this report to go further. Mendip District Council should take note of the discussion about car parking charges and innovations some other councils are finding to encourage town centre shopping. And what we need at Saxonvale is not another big supermarket but a sensitive development which builds on and supports the current town centre and the economic viability of our town, not threatens it.”
But Frome For All, the campaign group that would like to see a supermarket large enough to draw customers back to the town centre from the out-of-town stores, welcomes the report’s ideas to fight out-of-town developments. Jackie Adams of the group said, “I am delighted with the Mary Portas report on regenerating the High Street – something that is at the heart of the Frome For All campaign.
“There are a number of excellent recommendations which will be welcomed by those who, like Frome For All, believe in town centre shopping and believe that a thriving town centre is a key to a thriving community.
“In order to reach its full potential, a town centre has to be much more than just a shopping centre; it is the main ‘public face’ of a town and focal point for the community. A thriving town centre that is well used by all local people will help enhance social cohesion and civic pride.
“This is why Frome for All want shopping facilities in the town centre that better meet the needs of the whole community, so that many more people shop locally rather than having to travel out of town.”