A network to rethink and revitalise town centres and high streets
FOOTFALL IN TOWN CENTRES – TWO OVERLOOKED REASONS FOR DECLINE
Footfall is a prime indicator for retailers and much sophisticated technology is now employed in its measurement. It is no doubt a worthy and useful tool for many retailers to judge current trends. However, they should perhaps look further and pose the question of what factors directly influence footfall in town centres and are these factors constant or changing? What are the motivating factors that entice or even force individuals into visiting town centres? It is arguable significant change has happened over the last decade; a change that many seem to overlook at their peril.
The word force may conjure up a picture of town centre visitors being herded around at gunpoint or some other form of bondage. Well, a few years ago that was the case in a metaphorical sense. Gas bill, electricity bill, telephone bill, bank and building society transactions – all these items until relatively recent times necessitated regular visits to the local town centre to pay relevant dues and demands. Now, in my local borough, it is not even possible to pay council tax at the council offices. Swathes of these transactions now take place on a remote basis, using either direct-debit or online transfers. The enforced trip to the local town, centre part of life for several decades, is nor more. The result is a huge drop in a once guaranteed footfall that took in local shops as a secondary activity to its primary reason for visiting the town centre.
This significant reduction in footfall sits alongside another phenomenon of most contemporary town centres, namely their lack of residents. Furthermore, in many smaller towns, there is a growing scarcity in professional workers. Look at any town centre picture up to World War II and it is striking how many people throng the streets and squares in comparison to photographs of more recent times. The reason is simple; many people actually lived in town centres. Not merely small business owners and traders, it was also not unusual for local bank managers, then a figures of considerable standing, to be accommodated ‘over the shop’ in the early 20th century. Many such individuals brought added vibrancy to local cultural and creative activities in their leisure hours, as they became the doyens and leaders of community organisations such as local choral societies or drama groups. Such groups now increasingly rely on rural-domiciled membership, unless they are fortunate to be in a university or heritage town, where creative professionals are more likely to be prominent members of local communities.
These two social changes combine to restrict the healthy blood flow once running through the central veins of many small towns. It is arguable that until a successful means of restoring this crucial circulation is found, the hearts of many town centres will struggle to beat at a healthy pace. Indeed, some may simply expire, as even the best paramedical town centre gurus will be unable to breathe new life into their ailing bodies.
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