Monday, November 13, 2017

News: Same issues in Rotherham town centre

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It is five years since Rotherham town centre was named as a Portas Pilot by the Government. Rothbiz editor Tom Austen takes a look at some of the issues affecting Rotherham and other town centres.

The Portas review of 2011 set out in detail what the retail consultant thought we all needed to do to breathe economic and community life back into our high streets. It covered issues that rang true in Rotherham, and across the country. She said at the time: "The new high streets won't just be about selling goods. The mix will include shops but could also include housing, offices, sport, schools or other social, commercial and cultural enterprises and meeting places."

Five years later, and after a number of local plans, studies, masterplans and documents (at significant cost no doubt), it is clear that the focus for Rotherham now is on new housing and leisure uses to boost the town centre. A recent report from consultants was clear that retail is not the answer.

The same 2017 retail study showed that just over £1 in every £10 from the Borough's residents is still being spent in Rotherham town centre - its main use now for convenience goods. However, £2.50 in every £10 spent by the Borough's residents is spent at Parkgate and £2 in every £10 is being spent at Meadowhall. I wonder how much is spent online?

Home to big name stores and free parking (subsidised by the bigger rents), Parkgate and Meadowhall are the main shopping destinations for comparison goods. You can add to that the evidence from recent studies that showed that 51% of Meadowhall's food and beverage turnover comes from residents of Rotherham.

There are opportunities to claw some of this spend back. Leisure, food and beverage stands out and consultants say there is a market for a cinema in the town. However, residents need to get over their desire for Rotherham town centre to look like it did in its retail heyday with department stores and lots of national retailers. It is not going to happen. Shoppers have changed how, and where, they spend and retailers have changed how they sell to us.

The focus for the town centre now is leisure and housing. Perhaps retailers will follow / return when the town is more viable? Convenience goods retailers and a range of service are here for the foreseeable future. With the support from the Portas pilot, the town will continue to offer something different with niche, independent retailers (who care about their town).

Why it has taken so long to adopt a plan to shrink the town's retail core and look at other uses, I don't know, but it is estimated that the catalyst leisure development in the new masterplan that is set to revive the town - the £43m cinema and hotel led proposal for Forge Island - is not planned to be ready until 2020.

I'm looking forward seeing the impact of the new projects (1,000 students at the new University Centre Rotherham has got to help, for example) and for the town centre to find its new role, but it could still get worse before it gets better.

Portas recently told BBC Radio 4: "The last five years, three years particularly, with the growth of internet, has been actually shifting beyond how we ever thought retail would shift and when you start to look at some of the biggest names in retail who have tried desperately to ride this wave and failed, your heart goes out to the independents.

"There needs to be greater, greater support, and vision, from Government. And real understanding of what we need as a country, and what we want as a country, from our High Streets and our communities."

The Portas review looked at other issues, calling on the Government to address business rates and absentee landlords. A 2017 rates review saw some rents in Rotherham town centre go up, whilst others went down. Many smaller units receive rate relief, or pay no rates at all.

The only retailer in Rotherham that I can remember benefiting from a national scheme that offered a period of reduced rates for taking on a vacant property was Wilkos when it opened at Parkgate in 2014. Not really any help to our town centre which I think was the aim of the initiative.

The retail and property industry is still waiting for the Government to address the rates issue. Another national relief scheme announced in March is yet to come into force in Rotherham.

Portas also said that local authorities should use their discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses. I can only recall Rotherham Council giving concessions to charities and community projects (the fantastic Grimm & Co in the town centre is an example), along with getting KP Nuts to stay in the area.

Whilst I'm here, a new out of town retail development has recently opened at Cortonwood. Passed only on appeal, Rotherham Council refused the application, raising concerns over the impact of the development on Rotherham town centre, and not convinced by applicants that sequentially preferable sites in Rotherham and Barnsley town centres could not be used for the 100,000 sq ft of retail space.

Now open, my rough calculations indicate that the ten new national retailers at Cortonwood will have a collective rates bill that would see the Council retain perhaps £500,000 a year. I'd like to see this income ringfenced and used for boosting the economy and supporting our town centres. Difficult when the authority has a funding black hole but still...

On a related point, Mary Portas made a recommendation for the Government to have the Secretary of State have "exceptional sign off" for all new out-of-town developments and require all large new developments to have an "affordable shops" quota. Would it have affected Cortonwood? The planning inspector siding with the developer suggests not.

Portas also recommended that local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres. Some free parking is offered in Council car parks, short stay on Forge Island for example, but the issue comes up time and time again (Parking is also free for three hours at Tesco so long as you spend a fiver in store).

The new masterplan makes it clear that free parking across the board is not the answer for revitalising the town centre. The authority recently pledged to investigate additional parking incentives and parking spaces. It will be difficult given that most councils have got used to the income that parking generates and a lot of car parks are owned by private companies. The conflict between long staying workers and short staying shoppers is also an issue.

Possible initiatives might include pay on exit barriers where the first hour is free and you only pay for how long you stay, or money off parking if you spend with local retailers (taking a leaf out of Tesco's book).

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Another recommendation was focused on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe. In Rotherham, a lot of this comes down to perception. If people stay away because they think it is unsafe, even though the stats show that reported crime is a lot lower here, then it is still an issue that needs addressing. I found it hard to understand when reading that only 18% of Rotherham pupils in a survey said they felt safe in town centre, but there it is.

I'm looking forward to seeing the review of the newly introduced Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) but how do you measure perceptions? At least, from what I'm told, the perceptions of the town from investors and developers has changed in so far that there is "significant interest" in the Forge Island scheme.

What else? Portas took aim at betting shops but even with a change in planning rules, Rotherham Council failed in a bid to stop Paddy Power opening in the town centre.

On landlords, Portas discussed ideas around lease structures, further disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant and prompted Council's to be more proactive in using Compulsory Purchase Order powers to encourage the redevelopment of key high street retail space.

In Rotherham, this issue has never been more evident on Corporation Street (pictured, top) where Council bosses were reaching the "last resort" having failed to engage with the absentee owners of burnt-out, eyesore, long-vacant buildings, despite numerous attempts.

As my other article shows, I think that the efforts to improve the retail offer by supporting independent retailers in Rotherham has been a success, but with stretched council budgets, a distinct lack of a sustained follow up from the Government and a retail sector that continues to shift, it's the same issues that are affecting our town centres. The new projects in the masterplan can't come soon enough for Rotherham.

Images: Google Maps / RMBC / CWM / Eltherington /

2 comments:

Mr me November 13, 2017 at 11:51 AM  

Meanwhile,Just up road in Barnsley,at town.with a smaller population,theyre already constructing new markets,eateries bars,shopping centre,bowling and 13 screen cinema(note even if Forge Island ever happens,theres only a 5 screen planned As usual Rotherham is light years behind everywhere else and even when planned we get small half measures.Rotherham is run.like a small country parish not the major town.of over 260000 it is.Pathetic!

Anonymous,  November 14, 2017 at 12:03 PM  

There has always been a lack of ambition in Rotherham, it’s all too easy too blame Parkgate and Meadowhall, they have been around for years.
The council should of acted before now, and as for the new plans, I’m not sure they will work either, the consultants say to move away from retail and they way forward is leisure cinema and cafe etc, that may help at weekends and evenings but what about the rest of the time ?
Independent shops have come and are going slowly ! Rotherham town centre should have had a modern mall similar to Alhambra in Barnsley or Frenchgate in Doncaster, big name shops would follow and thus bringing extra people. I’m afraid it’s all very late in the day for anything now !

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