There is a challenge facing our town centres. They could once again be a place where people can exchange ideas and learn new skills, as well as do their shopping. We need a strong local community champion to drive forward these projects – that is what I want to be be as our next Member of Parliament.
Empty shops are viewed negatively by residents and visitors to our towns. These empty shops could be the key to a community-focussed high-street. Large retail chains aren’t attached to small towns in the same way as independent traders are, we must do all we can to attract independent traders into the towns.
There is often a focus on large cities, but small cities and towns too often miss out. These areas are too small for Big City deals, but too large for some of the rural development funding that is available. I want to make sure that we get our fair share of investment. I would like the government to offer grants for market towns so they can convert vacant shops into spaces for community services such as social enterprises, local art displays, play schemes and adult learning centres.
I have conducted research into what other towns have done to attract people into the town centre. One of my favourite schemes was in Worthing where a former carpet shop was converted into a ‘pop up go-cart track’ for half term holidays. Other towns have used the shops for craft centres, areas to practice circus skills sessions, screen-printing, fashion workshops and other activities for young people – especially during the school holidays.
Example 1: The ‘We are Bedford’ partnership staged the ‘Castle Quay Weekender’ in an effort to bring the area’s empty shops back to life. Local shops were used to create photography exhibitions, art installations and musical performances. More than 4,000 people visited the area over the weekend; most of the Castle Quay units are now let.
Example 2: In Wolverhampton, ‘We Create’ – a training and fashion design agency that supports students, graduates and people from socially excluded backgrounds – took out a six-month lease on an empty shop. Local designers and illustrators benefited from affordable space, workshops and retail experience.
Often making contact with the landlords or property owners was the main challenge faced when organising these projects. It is especially difficult when the owners are not local and have little grasp on what communities want. If elected, I would want to use the position our next Member of Parliament to bring those landlords together in the town centre and discuss what more could be done to boost our towns.