Saving our High Streets
By Marguerita Moreton and Tony Clayton
Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells have very different High Streets. All three face similar pressures from on-line shopping and out of town competition.
Tunbridge Wells has its main shopping centre, Royal Victoria Place, independent shops in Camden Road, Mount Pleasant and the High Street leading to the Pantiles. But it has faced high street shop closures - starting with Woolworths and BHS.
25% of shops in Royal Victoria Place are closed for refurbishment. This hasn't helped footfall throughout the town. There's no relief from high rents or business rates to offset the problem. The Borough Council made life harder for the Farmers Market by evicting stall holders from its land - Lib Dems councillors helped move it to Market Square off Camden Road.
Sevenoaks High Street faced closures too - including Tesco, and independents like Hoads shoes. It is helped by a Town Partnership - sponsored by Sevenoaks Town Council, bringing together local authorities, business and residents organisations to promote living and working in the town. Two versions of the Partnership managed Sevenoaks through the building of Blighs shopping centre, and developed new events and festivals. Maybe it could learn something from Tunbridge Wells on how to make a Farmers Market sucessful
Local councils focused on making money out of property development may not help retailing in any of our towns. What could make a difference is taxing landowners on sites left empty for decades - the 'black holes'. Business Improvement Districts, using a small levy on business rates to invest in projects to make town centres more attractive can work too.
And planners need to recognise business is changing. Cafes, restaurants and entertainment bring more people into town. It's getting the mix right that matters.
Tony Clayton (Sevenoaks) and Marguerita Moreton (Tunbridge Wells)