I've recently closed my shop in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. It's your typical town, one that used to be prosperous but is now down on its luck. Lots of empty shop-fronts, expensive parking, fewer buses bringing people into town, anti-social louts and lots of pound and charity shops. Some days it would be so quiet that we'd pop outside to see if there had been a Zombie Apocalypse.
The town used to be a bustling market town with an ancient past, not unlike my home town of Sandbach or Nantwich. Many factors have contributed to the death of this once busy high street. For starters, there's changing shopping habits as more people shop online, and in-town parking which is expensive and poor quality (indoor: tiny spaces, outdoor: tiny spaces and pot-holed). There's just been a review carried out on the car parking by external 'consultants' and their report concluded that the parking is reasonably priced and hasn't been increased for four years and so is actually a bargain. An alternative view could be that the cost of a ticket was so expensive four years ago, that it contributed to the town's demise. It's currently £1.10 to park for an hour in town compared to £0.60 in Nantwich. Parking in Sandbach is free.
My shop is in a small shopping arcade. It's difficult to find because the address has a street name but there's no street sign. Instead there's a signpost at the entrance directing people to a Police Station which is no longer there. I've been requesting the street sign for the last 18 months. Everyone I've spoken to is adamant that it's not their responsibility. There could be a special 'Not My Job' course that everyone takes upon joining the council. The arcade, which could be delightful, is painted in garish blue and green which are the town's logo colours. Every other sign or flower planter in the town centre is a tasteful black and gold.
After taking on the unit from the council I upgraded the electrics so that there wouldn't be a fire if a fuse blew. I installed hot water and decorated. It was in a bad state. Looking back, I'm not sure what I was thinking, let's put it down to entrepreneurial optimism. Here's a couple of photos. Grim, right?
After designing and decorating the shop it was in good shape. Perhaps a little too fancy for the area, as I heard feedback that people were too intimidated to come in. Yep, they assumed that because it looked nice they wouldn't be able to afford it. Not sure what to say to that. Other than to confirm that a handmade brownie is always going to cost a few pence more than one made in a factory with a shelf-life of months. It will also taste much, much better too.
There were rent and business rates to pay, and an additional levy for the Business Improvement District. The BID manager had previously been Town Centre manager. I'm not sure if anyone else applied. Hundreds of businesses in the town paid this additional tax only after receiving letters giving them a court date. The role of the BID should be essentially entrepreneurial. There needs to be passion about re-energising and re-invigorating our town. Some events were brilliant, for example, street circus and performers which created a buzzy atmosphere on those specific days. Participating in Britain in Bloom brightened the town up considerably, it's been involved for many years. We even had hanging baskets in our arcade! We weren't so lucky with Christmas decorations though. Other events which took place during the evening, or on Sundays and Bank Holidays when most shops were closed didn't help small retailers at all. I asked the BID about the street sign. Unfortunately, it was outside of their remit.
Now I find myself having to gut the unit that I've spent thousands of pounds improving. There is no logic there at all. It must be put back to how it was. In fact, they want it to be improved (at no cost to them) as I don't have to reinstall the dodgy old electrics they're happy to take the upgrade on that. They also seem happy to take the hot water installation, LED lights and new flooring. After removing the counters and shelving, I must repaint the walls which had not been freshly painted when I took the unit on. The lack of simple common-sense is irritating, but not unexpected. It's been a sobering experience, that I would neither recommend nor repeat. Our high streets are becoming ghost towns and organisations like our councils that are able to make sweeping and innovative changes are choosing apathy at best and Jobsworth Fascism at worst.