Reviving town centres: the heartbeat of community, even in the digital age

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Does every town need a town centre? Despite changes in retail habits, town centres continue to play an essential role, argues MP Simon Hoare

Simon Hoare MP
Simon Hoare MP

Many years ago I attended a lecture given at the Royal Town Planning Institute. While it was not a sell-out affair (I doubt attendance at such an event is on anyone’s Bucket List) the topic was an interesting one: does every town need a town centre?
It was not a rhetorical question and the lecturer felt that the question was answerable in the negative. He felt that Internet shopping, coupled with increased access to personal modes of transport, meant that retail and local services could be focussed on one or two towns with quite a large geographical area.
I did not, and do not, agree.
Every town is different. It has evolved over varying timespans and for various reasons. Notwithstanding this, the needs of a town’s inhabitants appear to be pretty universal. We need somewhere to meet and hold community events. We need food, so food retail is important. A pub or two and a few eateries provide space for socialising and entertainment. We need to be groomed and occasionally pampered. A post office or bank provides essential financial and other services. It is true that our retail habits have changed with the advent of the internet – supermarket home delivery means that increasingly the ‘big shop’ is undertaken online. The internet also plays an increasingly important role for banking, TV licence renewals etc, as it will increasingly do for health, too. So our town centres are necessarily evolving to meet the needs of today.

Old street, new look
Doubtless some current commercial properties will be converted, possibly re-converted, to residential use. This is to be welcomed, providing, as it does, sustainable living space and a sense of community and activity in the centres long after the shops have shut. Trying to win the pricing competition is an uphill struggle for small local independent traders, and it is not one they should embark on. Instead, a resolute focus on product knowledge, local supply chain, short food miles and a personal level of service makes the local shopper feel valued and the experience a pleasant one.
Some current commercial units are likely to be converted to provide entertainment, leisure or – to use the real estate phrase ‘dwell time’ – facilities. Our town councils have an important role to play too – ensuring the streets are clean, planters attractive and that there’s the odd bench here and there to attract people to their area.
We are blessed in North Dorset. The principle towns of Blandford Forum, Sturminster Newton, Shaftesbury, Gillingham and Verwood all have unique character and charm.
They also have stand-out town councils and councillors who play a key role.
The restrictions of COVID lockdowns (they seem a lifetime ago, don’t they?) forced people to use their towns – and they liked what they saw and found. As more people work from home, the opportunity to shop locally and on one’s doorstep presents itself, thereby maintaining footfall and supporting local business.
We all have a role to play. Central government needs to provide flexibility within the planning rules and continued support for Business Rates. Dorset Council needs to be fleet of foot on planning and harnessing the energies of local entrepreneurs, benefactors and others to deliver sustainable change, ensuring the longevity of our centres. But above all, if we are to answer the question my lecturer posed in the affirmative – we need to use them or lose them.

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