As a new report reveals one in seven Welsh high street shops lie empty, a Welsh Government Minister admits that radical intervention is needed to save Wales’ town centres.
The report by Wales’ Auditor General has prompted calls for action by the Welsh Labour Government.
Reasons for the decline of the high street have been attributed, by Adrian Crompton, to changing consumer habits and expectations, advances in technology, past policy choices, and measures taken to counter the spread of coronavirus.
A second report ‘Small Towns, Big Issues’ follows an in-depth study of three Welsh town and city centres – Bangor, Bridgend and Haverfordwest. It was led by Professor Karel Williams – a professor at Manchester Business School.
Both reports conclude that town and city centres are at the heart of Welsh life but addressing the challenges they face requires ‘imagination and ambitious leadership’, backed up by ‘co-ordinated, cross-government decision making’.
Specific recommendations for both Welsh Government and for local authorities include everything from access to public transport and effective promotion of town centres to the simplification of funding streams.
Welsh Government Minister, Lee Waters MS admitted that “We need joined-up intervention to lift town centres, and an effort to tackle out-of-town development, if we are to succeed in turning things around”.
The minister also stressed the need to focus on dealing with out of town developments.
“Town and city centres are the places most of us can walk to, or get public transport from, and they provide common access points into many transport routes,” he said.
“We want better jobs and services in town centres where people can access them without needing to get in their car.”
“Both reports make clear that we have all failed to control out of town development and we need to mobilise alliances for change in our town centres to turn things round.”
At an event in Bangor, Mr Waters unveiled a new Town Centre First plan, meaning that town and city centre sites should be the first consideration for all decisions on the location of workplaces and services.
He also announced the establishment of three sub-groups, one of which will lead on finding ways to incentivise town centre development but also disincentive out of town development. A second group will look at how funding offered under the Transforming Towns programme can be simplified. The final group will look at planning and engaging with communities so that they have a say in what happens in their town.
Commenting, Welsh Conservative and Shadow Economy Minister Paul Davies MS said: “It is a sad fact that the traditional high street has been struggling over the last few years as we change the way we shop, but this report is a much welcomed wake-up call for those with the ability to put change in motion.
“Politicians of all hues are constantly trying to keep banks and cash machines in our towns, for example, but it’s just as important to address what can be done for the future to aid our economic recovery and support jobs.
“Measures such as scrapping car parking fees, abolishing rates for small businesses, and introducing job support schemes to help micro businesses grow are other proposals we hope the Welsh Government look at, in addition to the British Government’s Community Renewal Fund.
“However, it is undeniable that the pandemic has played a part in harming the high street. Given the distinct actions of the Welsh Labour Government to counter coronavirus and their effect on the economy, this only further demonstrates the need for a Wales-specific Covid inquiry.”
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