Here’s what you’ve told us about #YourTown

Here’s what you’ve told us about #YourTown
22 July 2021
Town centre

We’ve outlined some key themes from your responses to our survey earlier this year

We’ve been overwhelmed by your engagement to our survey earlier this year, with just over 2400 responses received from citizens and businesses – thank you all for getting involved!

Below, we have collated some key themes from your responses.

We’ve also included some questions – if you’d like to submit any responses to some, or all, of these questions we’ve put our email address at the end of this blog for you to get in touch.

Because access to public transport in many parts of Wales is poor, cars have become essential to get to your local amenities and town centres.

The RAC estimates that in 1952 there were 2.5 million vehicles on Britain’s roads. By December 2020 this had increased to 38.6 million licensed vehicles. 

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the most of you (73%) regularly access your town centres by car and under (20%) using public transport as an alternative method.

Some of your concerns noted that: limited availability of public transport, access to car parking and the cost of car parking are key barriers to visiting your town centres more often. Free car parking at out-of-town retail parks has become a threat to the town centre footfall.

We think there’s an opportunity for some rebalancing of charging for car parking to create a more level playing field for our town centres. Do you agree? 

  • Were any periods of free parking (during the pandemic) an incentive for you to visit your town centres more often?
  • If out-of-town retail parks enforced car parking charges, that were equal to that of your town centre, would this effect your decision whether to visit the retail park, town centre or both?

Online shopping and out of town retail have taken away trade from many traditional town centres. There are opportunities for councils and others to do different things and things differently with empty premises.

Since 2014, just under £900m has been directly funded and enabled by the Welsh Government for town centre regeneration. Despite this, 1 in 7 shops are empty on high streets in Wales and over 400 national chain stores closed on our high streets in 2020.

From reading your comments, we recognise that there is an opportunity to explore the potential to change the use of empty buildings – creating more leisure, recreation and community use. By doing so, this could encourage people to visit town centres by offering services and activities that are sustainable and accessible for all ages.

Swansea University have set up a free-to-enter exhibition in Swansea city centre in a unit that has recently become empty. The exhibition, Oriel Science, showcases some of the real-life science research going on at the University and offer workshops and talks. This has re-purposed a previous retail space whilst reaching out to the local community and inspiring the next generation of local scientists and innovators.

We’d like to hear your views on the following...

  • Should local authorities encourage alternative use of empty shops?
  • If there are too many run down or empty units should these be demolished to create more outdoor public space?

There has been a rapid reduction in ‘essential services’ like banks, post offices, council and other public bodies offices over the years, although your demand for them hasn’t fallen.

In recent years there has been a noticeable reduction in essential services in town centres across Wales. Between 2012 and 2020, bank and building society branches in Wales reduced by 28.8% and the number of ATMs fell by 18% in the last three years. Post offices have marginally fallen by 3.9% in the last decade.

Our survey indicated that before the pandemic, the three main reasons that you visited your town centre was for: shopping (especially food), socialising and accessing key local services such as the council, health services or a bank. 

With this in mind, most of you said that you don’t think that your town centre provides all the key local services that you require.

  • What are the essential services that every town centre needs?
  • In the next few years  would you use online services, if they were available, rather than visiting your town centre?

It is possible to create thriving towns, but it needs ambitious leadership and everybody working together. 

Our surveys found that overwhelmingly you felt that the local leaders do not have ambitious plans for your town centres, and only a quarter of you were confident for the future of your town centres.

Things can change for the better. At the town centre regeneration webinar held in May, we heard some inspiring and alternative methods of delivering successful regeneration, including:

  • Treorchy: A little Valleys town swimming against the tide, to becoming the best high street in the UK (presented by Treorchy BID).
  • Newtown and Llanllwchairan: Turning weakness into strength, having also presented a Place Plan to Powys Council that’s well on the way to becoming Supplementary Planning Guidance  (presented by Newtown and Llanllwchairan Town Council).
  • Blaenau Ffestiniog: Weaving together the foundational and circular economy with the aspirations of the local community (presented by Cwmni Bro Ffestiniog).
  • Bethesda: Community Councils banding together to regenerate their local area in as sustainable a way as possible (presented by Partneriaeth Ogwen).
  • Mold: A successful local voucher scheme that maximises the money spent locally for the town’s benefit (presented by Totally Mold).
  • Cardigan: A thriving town of independent shops, using data intelligently to improve their offer (presented by Cardigan Town Council).

In each of these places regeneration has been led by local people and businesses supported by their councils and Welsh Government. 

Tell us how regeneration programmes in your town centres are working...

  • Is there is anything that stops you from getting involved in your town centre’s regeneration?
  • What could councils do to get you involved?
  • How would you like to be involved?

Councils need to use all their powers to help regenerate town centres.

Eye sore and derelict buildings in town centres were frequently flagged in your survey responses as major problems on the high street. There are many ways that these can be addressed by councils, such as Compulsory Purchase Orders, but they are often expensive and can take a long time.

During the webinar in May, we heard from Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council who shared their aspiration to “connect the hight street to the river for leisure”. This entails demolishing a shopping centre to create a green, open space to hold events and spaces for young people. They are also looking to relocate the Council headquarters near the new riverside/town centre.

Tell us how councils should tackle the problems facing your town.

  • Is there scope to reduce the size of town centres and change the balance of buildings vs green/open spaces?
  • Should councils re-focus the size of the retail centre and bring it together into one smaller area?
  • Would you like to see more alternative uses of space in your town centre, such as leisure, culture, and arts along with retail?

Covid-19 has been a challenge to businesses, but many we have spoken to have also used it as an opportunity to change and grow their business. 

We heard that 90% of your businesses have applied for, and received, emergency funding from Welsh Government to help you survive the full impact of the pandemic. In response to this, most businesses have diversified their offer to ensure they can continue to operate by providing an online service (74%); offering home delivery and take away services (35%); introducing mobile services including pop ups (21%); and converting premises for alternative use or trade (12%).

However, COVID-19 has changed how often people visit and use their town centres, with 91% stating they visit less frequently than in the past. This Raises challenges in the future.

  • Going forward would you prefer to visit shops in town centres, or do you intend to do more shopping on-line?
  • Are you planning to visit town centres more, less or the same in the future?
  • What would encourage you to go to your town centre?

Get in touch

Do you have some answers to some of our questions above? Drop us an email, we love to hear more – council.studies@audit.wales

There will be an opportunity to carry on with the #YourTown conversation in a live webinar on 2 September 2021. In the webinar we’ll be exploring, identifying and discussing research on the regeneration of Welsh towns. 

Register your interest on our website – we hope to see you there!