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Coast to Capital highlights our changing towns and High Streets

FSB attended a stakeholder event of the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership at the new Engineering and Digital Technology Park, University of Chichester (pictured). Coast to Capital contributed £8million of tax payers money to the flagship project which was officially opened last Autumn by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The event brought together a panel of ‘thought leaders’ to discuss delivering prosperous urban centres. “This is an area worthy of the spotlight,” said FSB Development Manager, Martin Searle. “The debate needs to go beyond talk of the High Street dying in the light of competition from on-line shopping, to a more sophisticated understanding of how our town centres are changing and what we need to do to reinvent and re-invigorate them”.
The panel included Louise Goldsmith, Leader of West Sussex County Council, Jackie Sadek, founder of UK Regeneration, Professor Jane Longmore, Vice Chancellor, University of Chichester and Mark Buchanan-Smith, Director of Brighton’s Churchill Square Shopping Centre. Jonathan Sharrock of Coast to Capital facilitated the debate.

Themes included the importance of a clean and safe environment (public realm) to create a tip-top shopping experience for visitors, and the reinvention of town centres to encourage ‘footfall’ for other uses, such as medical checks and for heritage and entertainment trips. Mark Buchanan-Smith highlighted that spending upon retail is changing and that it has, in fact, increased for many regional destinations, such as Brighton, but it is reducing for smaller town High Streets.

“It is important we differentiate towns in Sussex like Bognor Regis and Hastings and smaller High Streets like Lancing and Heathfield said FSB’s Martin Searle. “They can each continue to thrive with a mixture of changes in Government policy as well as application of innovative local solutions.” 

Changes in Government policy, highlighted in the debate, include reforms to the business rates system and investing in transport infrastructure including improving local roads. Innovative local solutions include urban planning to make sure town centres are people-friendly and pleasant to walk, cycle and enjoy ‘café culture’.

Also, sustainable transport systems that join up roads with public transport, together with efficient, reasonably priced parking are important to encourage more and longer visits to town. “And we need to recognise that on-line technology is not the enemy but needs to be harnessed to complement services and experiences in towns,” added Martin Searle.

There is wide agreement that no one wants just a Mallscape – a closeted desert of the same High Street shop chains. “It is the independent, smaller businesses that continue to give a town its diversity and character and they need support and to be included.” concluded Martin Searle.

The overriding message from the event was that the stakes are higher now that on-line companies are competing with the High Street – and this calls for greater innovation and collaboration. Building the town ‘brand’ on its strengths, such as what the natural and built environment has to offer, local history and produce, is key.