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Let's talk the town up

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Leader's blog Jonathan Morgan

High streets across the land are changing as town centres adapt to modern shopping habits. Loughborough is no different.

Every year, the amount spent via online stores is increasing and in some areas, such as toys, clothes and tech, the change is having a significant effect on established brands whose business model is no longer sustainable.

Many retailers are adapting to offer online purchases alongside their high-street stores – but others aren’t, and many of those have ceased to be a part of the UK high street – expect others to follow.

Town centres need to reinvent themselves and become destinations more for leisure and entertainment, not just retail.

I think we are seeing this in Loughborough and, as with every other high street, it is undergoing a transition period. And while it is always a concern to see retailers close, particularly larger ones in prominent places, our vacancy rate is still below the national average – and new business are opening.

Plenty to be positive about

It is also essential we remain positive and there are lots of reasons to do so.

We have a brilliant selection of independent shops in addition to many of the top names. We also have the cinema complex in Baxtergate which features several restaurants and cafes. In the past 10 years, Loughborough has changed, and is adapting well – it has a vibrant, all-day, family-friendly offering that was previously lacking – and there will be further changes to come.

Between the Council and Love Loughborough there is an excellent spread of events through the year which drives footfall. More than 23,000 people were in town on November 25 for the Christmas lights switch-on (and the new lights look fantastic and were worth the investment).

When you add in Love Loughborough’s Classic Car show, Loughborough Fair, the Bike and Trike Show, Loughborough by the Sea, a variety of specialist markets and other events, the numbers start to add up.

But what else is happening

Love Loughborough, backed by the Council, is always working hard behind the scenes to support landlords and agents to find tenants quickly to fill the spaces. This takes time.

The Loughborough Town Team has also recently been formed – a collaboration between the Council, Love Loughborough, other partners and businesses.

The team’s remit is to progress a Council masterplan which sets out a vision for how the town centre should develop.

As part of that plan, we have allocated £520,000 of council and other funding to improve the Ward’s End part of town to make it a more attractive environment for shoppers – which, along with other improvements, will take our investment in the town centre to around three-quarters of a million pounds.

However, much of the masterplan requires commercial investment and that’s what we will be seeking out.

The group is also another way for us to keep in touch with issues facing town centre businesses.

What we can and can’t do

When people see empty shop units they often call on the Council to cut rents and business rates but we don’t control either. Rents are set by landlords, not us, and business rates are decided by central government, and we collect them on their behalf.

What we have done is secure government funding in the past to offer business rate relief to the tune of £400,000 to nearly 600 businesses across the borough.

The Government also announced in the Budget that business rates would be cut for more high street businesses from April 2019. Love Loughborough estimates 500 of the 600 businesses in the town centre will be paying less in business rates. 

Remember, not all currently pay any rates at all – around 150 – as their premises are too small and below the initial threshold.

What we are likely to see in future is perhaps a smaller retail town centre, more leisure and entertainment businesses interspersed with non-retail businesses and residential properties.

High streets are changing and it will take time. It won’t happen overnight and there’s no silver bullet but there’s plenty to be positive about so let’s talk the town up, not down.

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