Saturday, August 01, 2009

High Street Woes

A reasonably well balanced report, I thought, from the BBC's Hugh Pym, as he walked along Margate High Street yesterday.

Margate, the BBC reports, is the worst hit town in the country, with a shop closure rate of 25% while cities in the north of England like Leeds and Liverpool also have rates of more than 20%.

Out of town shopping centres, such as Westwood Cross, are undeniably a factor in the demise of the great British high street but the collapse of large retail chains, such as Woolworths and the manner in which high streets have come to be dominated by the same over the last twenty years, Burton, H.Samuel, Woolworth, Next and more also lies firmly behind the problem.

Once a big out-of -town retail park appears, the big chain simply 'up-sticks' and create a vacuum in the town centres. In the same way, shoppers, vote with their feet and if they hadn't been going to Westwood Cross, they would have been going to Canterbury instead.

Margate's greatest challnge is chronic social deprivation, where it a leads much of the country in the harsh figures of despair. Thanks to the social-engineering of succesive Government's, frequently referred to as 'Dole-by-the-sea' , Margate and Cliftonville, together with other well-known seaside towns has witnessed a demographic change from which it is very hard to recover without significant Government investment. You can see this is our local health figures, teenage pregnancy rate, unusually high percentage of houses in multiple occupancy, domestic abuse figures and more.

Given the prevailing financial crisis, money from Government on the scale required is most unlikely, unless you happen to believe in fairies and so we are left to struggle with the multiple challenges while making regeneration and economic development through attracting new business to Thanet a top-priority.

If high street businesses are to be succesful, they have to first offer some advantage or attraction to local shoppers and secondly, those same local people need a sufficient disposable income to support the shops by visiting them. In this respect, Margate lies arguably between a rock and a hard place, sharing the tough experience of this recession with a score of seaside towns dotted across the South-east, even Brighton,to a degree.

A few weeks ago, I was in le Touquet, which is as up market and as well-heeled as you can possibly get for a European seaside town. I was astonished to see how many closed down shops and boutiques had appeared since my last visit. Tourists aren't spending money or simply aren't coming and the volume of business no longer exists to support some of the trendier stores there.

Woolworths was vitally important for Margate and Cliftonville as it occupied an important retail and social shopping niche. Without it the two suffer disproportionately with a knock-effect rippling through the shops as footfall decreases.

If I knew the answer to this problem I might become rich overnight. This recession is both changing the face of retail and the way in which we perceive it in terms of our shopping habits. In the meantime, as long as Government isn't prepared to help retailers by lowering the business rates, all councils can do is try very hard to find ways of encouraging new ideas and new busineses to set-up shop and act as a catalyst for future recovery when it comes.


Anonymous said...

Simon, this story illustrates how you can use statistics. The percentage should be calculated using the shopping inventory at Westwood Cross as that is where many of the traders have moved to. However, it does not detract from the level of deprivation in Thanet in general and Margate in particular.

Peter Checksfield said...

I think part of the problem is the way people prefer to shop these days. Most of them have cars, & they prefer to do their weekly / fortnightly / monthly shopping under one roof. I don't drive, & I also prefer to potter around different shops (greengrocers, bakers, chemists, etc), so to me Birchington High Street is far more appealing than Tesco at Westwood Cross, but unfortunately I'm in the minority.

Ken Gregory said...

Difficult one this, but the real answer to the problem is shoppers, as peter says. If the purchasing public want to shop at somewhere like Westwood/Bluewater/Lakeside, should an authority try to stop them. (It is a society with freedom of choice ((allegedly)))

If the people of Thanet do not want to shop in town centres should they be stopped from going to Westwood? Should ratepayers money be used to 'prop' up failing small shops?

Me, I go for the cheapest,best quality, goods. The cost of parking does not come into it, the convenience does. I like to park the car once, walk not too far, and get shopping over and done with ASAP.

Peter Checksfield said...

"Cheapest, best quality" is important of course, but so is a personalized individual service, at least to me. I'd much rather take my time & have a friendly chit-chat than just be served by a bored & under-paid assistant behind a conveyer belt.

tony flaig bignews said...

The lack of parking facilities is the main reason Margate High Street is in such a dire state.

Something that the current limp, weak, frankly incompetent administration has failed to address.

Still your view is typifies why you and your conservative colleagues have dragged Thanet and Margate down.

You cannot recognise a core issue no parking, hence no customers, hence no shops instead you direct us to the usual excuses which are easily attributed to the "its not my fault gov" line of waffle.

Ramsgate still seems to have shoppers mainly because the parking spaces haven't been commandeered by overpaid council officers selfishly taking the most convenient parking spots!

I recommend that you cease immediately your subscription to the Daily Mail and start to think for yourself. Have a nice day!

Ken Gregory said...

Tony, I do not read the Daily Mail on its own,or often, The Guardian and Times are also perused, but not the 'Torygraph'. There are loads of parking spaces in Margate, I have never had a problem finding one, in fact have had more problems at Westwood.

I do find that the staff in the shops in Margate are a little less helpful than those at Asda/Tesco/Sainsbury.

Anonymous said...

I've just come back from Westwood Cross on the bus having had to pop into Sainsbury's for some items not available closer to home.

My observations? Westwood Cross, bustling, clean, no litter, easy access, ample parking especially since the leisure development opened up etc. I don't drive but have observed when having been to Margate by car with others that it is very difficult to park close to shops without paying extortionate amounts. Not everyone wants to heft shopping distances to cars especially with young children in tow or if you're elderly.

I don't think Margate was brilliant for shopping apart from M&S and BHS.

Like Peter, I like local shops but if time is a factor most people want one-stop shopping.

Anonymous said...

I dont think people would have gone to canterbury if westwood cross had stuck to the original plan(that we were led to believe)that only retail shops that were in canterbury were going up there-ie moonsoon debenhams etc and not the ones on thanets high street ie m&s river island etc but as soon as it was built m&s got permission and the rest followed leaving the high street the way it is(and i believe that was clive and Iris and co)

Anonymous said...

Quote from Tracey Emin in todays Independent:- 'the glorious place of my childhood has largely been left to rot'.

Says it all, really.

Happy shopper said...

Westwood Cross :-easy and free parking and plenty of it with the new area by the cinema and casino, clean and well-maintained, no litter, good choice of shops, easily reached by bus, reasonable coverage if it rains, decent coffee shops, many staff not local (is that a plus? Yes, when they're helpful and obliging rather than ignoring you).

I could go on but you get my drift.

Hugin said...

I go to Canterbury to buy clothes and some household items because there I can find shops selling the range and quality of goods that I want. Even one of the big retail chains does not stock the better quality goods in its Westwood store that are available its Canterbury branch; they have no shop in Margate. I buy goods in Margate shops when they have what I want, but I don't expect shopkeepers to stock goods for which they have a small customer base.

DrM. said...

Tony, like Ken Gregory I have never experienced any problems parking in Margate and normally find more than enough space available, even for my rather large 'truck' in the car parks.

I'm rather more concerned at your reluctance to see what the real problems are and the enormous challenges that any administration, Conservative or Labour, has to face in Margate and Cliftonville.

Anonymous said...

My partner and I have lived in Westgate for 5 years. We have never shopped in Margate for several reasons; 1. We have never felt 'safe' in the town due to the rundown look of the place. 2. The double yellow lines. 3. The rediculously enforced litter brigade. 4. The crime rates (how many murders and muggings in Cliftonville in the last 5 years ?) 5. It is basically a dump.
We have been to Canterbury three times, our car was vandalised in the park and ride car park, we were accosted by several beggars the second time and everything is overpriced.
I shop on line, have my groceries delivered and if there is anything I need, I go to Birchington as Westgate rarely has a working ATM !
Oh! I went to Westwood Cross once, never again.

Anonymous said...

Margate High Street in my 40+ years has never been a nice place to shop. The pavements are covered in gum, the wind blows litter about, the High Street is a cruising track for 18 year olds in souped up Vauxhall Novas. I was in the bank a few days a go and some mind numbed idiot was swearing outside and acting very aggresively, one of the staff said to me 'A typical margate resident' and I care to agree to a degree. Also there are an awful lot of very ugly people, I don't mean by way of just looks but mannerisms....unable to act in a decent manner. Most or all of this I don't witness at Westwood. My wife works in retail there and was sworn at too by someone she said could have been an estate agent, solicitor etc. If you're reading this everyone laughed at you after you left.