One in five people in the UK live in or around small rural towns – roughly 11 million people – and they remain the most rapidly expanding settlements in England, expanding twice as fast as our larger towns and cities. Our small towns – and the independent retailers within them – are already facing many challenges: the loss of variety and closure of shops in town centres; increasing centralisation of health services, causing access problems for an ageing population; inflated housing prices driving young people out of the towns where they were brought up; the decline of traditional industries; and the pull of jobs in cities, which means that many towns are becoming dormitories for their bigger neighbours.
Town centres and high streets are under enormous strain.
Towns have been hit hard by the recession, with unemployment up by a third more than in the nation as a whole. Shop vacancies are rising and empty shops are getting harder to let – but rents are hard to afford, especially for independent retailers. Competition from out of town retailers, as well as planning issues have culminated in the difficulties now faced by our towns.
Towns are popular places to live with cohesive communities and great independent retailers
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Towns have many positive points – they are popular places to live with cohesive communities and can be great places to start independent businesses – and for independent retailers to thrive. In a new burst of local energy, thousands of projects have been developed through local initiative, most often led by town partnerships of businesses, community organisations, local councils and individual volunteers, helping to tackle the difficult issues of change.
And small towns have a champion – sharing innovative ideas and case studies of what towns can do to survive and to thrive, helping them navigate the latest government policies, subsidising training courses, and representing them to MPs and policymakers. That champion is national charity, Action for Market Towns.
About Action for Market Towns
Action for Market Towns (AMT) is a national membership group that provides small towns, local authorities and others with case studies, tools to improve their towns, policy advice, national representation, subsidised training and a range of other services.
Chief Executive Chris Wade says AMT’s mission is critical: “Our role is to help nurture the spirit of self-reliance that is so evident within small towns and to share good practice between them. We know from our work across the UK that communities and town partnerships – often including independent retailers – can come up with ingenious solutions to keep their towns vibrant and that the local authorities are keen to help such good ideas to spread. ”
Re-inventing town centres for the 21st Century
Having helped to establish many thriving town centre partnerships, AMT is in a unique position to offer evidence about the potential success of “Town Teams”.
Chris Wade says: “The new ‘community rights’ and ‘neighbourhood planning’ legislation, which has come into force as part of the Localism Act, means communities will have greater control over local developments – but only if they are proactive. It’s vital to ensure that your town has a “local plan” which meets your community’s needs. Independent retailers have a great opportunity to be a part of their town partnership or town team and to shape the development of their town – if they are proactive.”
Examples of Good practice in a number of small towns
There are lots of examples of small towns already using innovative ideas to stimulate activity, help their local shops, provide new opportunities for their communities, and become “multifunctional social centres” that people want to visit.
- Local loyalty card schemes have had dramatic, positive effects (with a measurable increase in shopper numbers and retail spend) for independent retailers in many of AMT’s member towns.
- Social media has given towns and retailers a great opportunity and a low-cost method to increase visibility and raise awareness of special offers.
- “Town Benchmarking” allows towns to understand their strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other, similar towns locally and nationally, helping them to identify strategies and even secure funding. Evidence has shown that Benchmarked towns perform better.
- Festivals, events, and regular ‘food markets’ can showcase both local produce and the expert advice which is often such a benefit from independent retailers
- Simple measures like signage, retail training, and mystery shopping can work wonders and can be organised jointly by independent retailers working together.
- More details on all of these and lots more advice available via www.towns.org.uk
Small towns – and independent retailers within them – are facing challenges – but the evidence of Action for Market Towns’ 400+ members across the UK shows that innovative ideas are helping many to thrive. More information visit www.towns.org.uk