Talking Politics: How we can save our high streets

Piece Hall can help make Halifax more attractive. Below: TV retail guru Mary Portas
Piece Hall can help make Halifax more attractive. Below: TV retail guru Mary Portas
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It’s a year since “TV retail guru” Mary Portas produced her report for the government making some far-reaching recommendations about how to revive High Streets in light of the increasing number of vacant shops and the challenge of out-of-town shopping centres and on-line shopping.

Here in Calderdale, undoubtedly we’re experiencing all of that. I see the vans going along the valley road and it’s very tempting to drive along the M62 if we’re thinking of a large purchase.

Mary Portas

Mary Portas

For us, there’s also the pull of the two City Centres (Manchester and Leeds): I see youngsters getting off the train with the recognisable carrier bags of new clothes.

So we’re trying to make sure that our large town, Halifax, becomes a more attractive centre, with Broad St, Piece Hall, plans to redevelop the Northgate House site.

But the High Streets in our larger settlements (from Brighouse to Todmorden) are still the places that most of us visit regularly as part of our daily lives, and places that people like to visit.

So I think that it’s important what they look like as well as what they “offer” – the shops, places to eat, and services that people need (doctors, dentists, chemists, accountants, solicitors, estate agents, hairdressers, banks, building societies).

While we may get access to some of these services on-line, I believe that there’ll always be a need for personal services – someone to talk things through with to get something sorted out.

We seem to have fared reasonably well in keeping shops open but, even so, just one or two shops can blight an area. As I drive into the Town Hall in Halifax, I see a row of shops where a couple of empty ones make the whole row (at the entry to the town centre) look less attractive.

Hebden Bridge has had a row of 3 shops in a prominent place empty for a long time. Both of these examples aren’t necessarily related to the current economic situation and that can make the job harder.

I’ve been thinking about this because, with a colleague from a local Partnership that I’m a member of, I attended a workshop in Leeds funded through the Mary Portas pilot project.

And I’ve also recently been part of a discussion with our own Kate Hardcastle. While the range of techniques is similar, the main message seems to be that we need to identify what’s special about our area – our “unique selling point” and really do something with it.

It may be easier for Hebden Bridge but everywhere does have its own character which does attract people to live, work and visit there.

The Council can help this process – Mary Portas lists several actions that Councils can take (using Business Rates, planning laws, parking, developing markets, and ultimately Compulsory Purchase Orders).

But I would contend that, to do this, it takes a visionary Council which has public support and is courageous. Is that Calderdale Council ?