Monday, 3 February 2014

Penzance's high street is not dead, whatever the 'experts' say

A prominent Labour adviser has declared the high street dead. On a mission to give judgement on the high street, Bill Grimsey has now cast his weary gaze to Penzance town center for a BBC Inside Out special. Such talk of high street death is dangerous, perception and confidence are key to selling. This is something that should be taken on board, we need to address the real problems of the high street don't get me wrong but turning people off town centers with such negative talk is counter productive. 

There are challenges to the high street. High business rates, high rents, the negative impact of out of the way and expensive parking, poor public transport and of course out of town retail. These things do need addressing and I welcome Grimsey's call that government ought to freeze business rates and review them. Unfortunately they're raising them by 2% (democracy dodging anyone?), a real step in the wrong direction.

I don't agree however that the high street needs to adapt and look past retail. There are fundamental changes in retail habits in the last few years, people do shop more online. (Although the closing of various tax loopholes for companies like Amazon and Play might indicate that sectors had it's heyday). But there has also been something of a recession. As Cornwall's GVA figures recently revealed, we're far from being out of the woods and despite growth throughout the UK that hasn't been the case in the Duchy. Perhaps we ought to wait until the storm has passed before we convert retail space into other uses?

That said there were reports from the ONS that high street spend 'surged' last Christmas throughout the UK. There are many encouraging stories of town center businesses in Penzance having a good festive season and a good summer last year to boot. Although there are still empty shops. There are a number of success stories, Lou's shoes moving to a bigger property that was empty, Sorcha Corbitt also filling an empty premises. The refurbishment and investment of Lloyds bank in the Market House. In the near future, rumours are of Burger King taking the old Curry's store and Edinburgh Woollen Mill coming to town. If that's the definition of dead I think we need to start putting bells back on graves!

I'm happy to say that Penzance Town Council is playing it's part. As part of the Neighbourhood Development Plan we are putting an emphasis on economic development. As something in the Mebyon Kernow manifesto and something I spoke to people about on the doorstep, I was delighted to support this. We need a plan, for too long government and local authorities have sat idly by and not thought deeply about the High Street. Something which the Grimsley review highlights and I agree with.

We do need work on our town center, I hope Cornwall Council and the government recognise the work the town council is doing to plan an economic future. But we shouldn't be quick to dismiss the high street as dead, it's far from it.

We need to attract people into the town center, we need to build confidence in Penzance as a retail center. It's not dead far from it, we are lucky to have town center where you can still buy the finest and freshest fish, vegetables, fruit and meat. Clothes shops galore, furniture, art works, diy, flowers as well as the staples of mobile phones, banks and travel agents. Not many towns these days can offer that, something we should be positive about.

We have to recognise there has been a recession and we are still feeling the effects of it. It would be wrong to use the last few years to draw conclusions about the high street without considering the economic downturn. Sure the town center isn't what it was 5 or 6 years ago,  but what business sector is? Let's promote what we do have rather than doing it down.

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