Friday, 23 January 2009

THIS TOWN IS BECOMING LIKE A GHOST TOWN

This fellow Thanet blogger’s post made me think.

Cllr Ezekiel said: "I am extremely sad to hear the news. The company is a friendly, family-run business. I extend my sympathy to the staff. You only have to walk down to the Old Town to see how Margate is improving but because of the credit crunch and the lack of support from central government we can’t make the things we want to happen, happen."

“Margate is improving”? I wish this was so, but being in denial helps nobody. Here’s a little team exercise for Thanet’s Council’s Cabinet. Cllr. Jo Gideon can walk down the centre of Ramsgate. Cllr Roger Latchford can do Birchington. Cllr. Wise can walk Northdown Road. Cllr Zita Wiltshire will look at Broadstairs. Cllr. Shirley Tomlinson takes Westgate. Then they can all walk down Margate High Street together with their Leader Council Sandy Ezekiel.

Then each in turn can complete the sentence “Leader, Margate High Street is in much better shape than my local High Street because……”

We can make it a Thanet version of the Emperor’s new clothes shops….

I can see Gap, Next, River Island,…..

It is uninformed and shows a lack of local knowledge to try and blame the credit crunch.

In 2006 Tim Hance, managing director at retail agency Leslie Furness, said

“Marks & Spencer pulled out of Ramsgate and then out of Margate, and it has decimated the town centres,” he further said “We have had a shop available in Margate town centre for three years (i.e since 2003) and, even with competitive terms, there is no demand for it. It has polarised those towns.”

Does Cllr Ezekiel when giving quotes not recall Margate’s sad decline has been going on for years?

Shops have been closing in Margate for years before the credit crunch as Michael’s photos show. Here’s my analysis of why this is. The overwhelming reason is Westwood Cross. I remember being briefed soon after my election in 2007 on retail leakage. Retail leakage is the amount of pounds spent outside of the area you live in. I can’t remember the figures but Thanet had one of the highest leakage rates in the country. That’s money, jobs and investment going to Canterbury, Bluewater etc.

So a development like Westwood Cross was a good idea. It has been very poorly designed and executed as anyone living on Margate Road in Northwood can tell you. We took some of Canterbury’s retail spend but got free added traffic congestion. I will post on this mess in the future. However, the decision in principle was correct, even if the execution has been poor.

Thanet’s shops have a further problem they are up against the sea. So whereas most shopping towns can draw customers from 360’ seaside towns only have half that 180’. Margate also suffers because it is so close to Northdown Road, in Cliftonville so effectively another flank is chopped off to draw customers in from. Then all those residents on the south side of Margate can go to free parking at Westwood Cross as easily if not more so than Margate High Street. This leaves as core shoppers, those living in the centre of Margate, plus people in Westbrook to support all those shops. That’s simply not enough people to keep the current number of retail premises going.

Margate used to be a destination for shopping but it is becoming less and less so. The more shops close, the less people come, then more shops close….it is a very vicious circle. More than a decade ago I was a board member of the Michael Heseltine inspired Deptford City Challenge. I really wish I was not writing this, but in my judgment and with over a decade’s experience working to regenerate Deptford High Street things will get worse with Margate High Street before they get better.

The Turner Centre is coming will it save Margate? The desire to redevelop the Old Town is laudable but it has not been strategically thought out. When shops close in the High Street one alternative use would be for restaurants, cafes etc. This has happened elsewhere. However, if you are encouraging “café culture” only a few hundred yards away there are not going to be enough customers around to sustain both areas.

If Cllr. Ezekiel is suggesting more money to “save” the High Street then there becomes a battle between the pedestrianised area and the Old Town as to which area will be more viable. The problem is this “competition” will be artificially funded by grants to try and save one area and redevelop the other. I cannot see how there can be enough customers to sustain sufficient retail or food/drink outlets in both areas. The Council needs to decide either, is it marginalizing the pedestrianised area and encouraging everything to flock towards the Turner Centre. Or will it try and sustain what is already in the pedestrianised area and stop trying to redevelop the Old Town? As Cllr Ezekiel has said there is not enough money to do what he wants so which is his priority?

In the last decade the money spent via the internet has gone from 0 to 15%. That’s 15% less shops whatever way you look at it. Look at the way travel agents have declined and merged when up against Ryanair, Lastminute and Expedia etc. This is a national phenomenon and it grows bigger every year.

Thanet Council needs to be clear about what has happened. Westwood Cross has sucked through “retail leakage”, the life out of Margate High Street. Did the same officers who advised me quite rightly that it was important to keep pounds in Thanet; not recognise that on a micro, smaller level Westwood Cross would suck pounds out of local High Streets? It is not as if there were not hosts of letters in the papers predicting this at the time.

The honest realistic approach is one of managed decline; let’s call it “managing change”, is that a sufficient euphemism? All the shops that are closing in Margate do not do so lightly. Whose judgment on the future of shops is better, retail analysts who are about making money, or a Council who are about spending money (quite rightly – that’s our job!)?

If the Council spends money on regenerating shops in Margate High Street it will be pouring money down the drain. There are some measures that can assist, but they are marginal and cannot change the fundamental economics of the situation. Some shops will close permanently and will change in use to office, residential or other. Nobody can be Canute against a sea of retail change.

Here’s a hard job for a Council Officer. Write a proposal to the Government Office of the South East, asking for more money for Margate High Street. Here’s a start

“We have made a bit of a mistake. We did not realise that developing Westwood Cross would affect Margate High Street. Can we have a few hundred million to buy up Westwood Cross and close it down to help the High Street please?..................”

That would help the High Street but wake up and smell the coffee, it is not going to happen and a few quick plasters of public spending on the bleeding High Street will not stop shops haemorrhaging.

Look at that quote again from Cllr Ezekiel he blames a

“lack of support from central government”

In the last 10 years there has been a 39% increase in real terms in money from Central Government to Local Government, how much more money does Cllr Ezekiel want? Can he provide a figure?

However, if it is Cllr. Ezekiel’s sincere and accurately quoted view, and he wants more central government money then he should start by publicly condemning David Cameron for calling for cuts in central government money for Thanet. That would be real leadership. Leading for the best interests of Thanet, and Margate High Street; not the best interests of the Conservative Party.

9 comments:

  1. You have your leader GORDON BROWN to blame!

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  2. A well thought out argument and article - where do we go from here?

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  3. Mark,
    High streets are changing, few people want to shop in them. I would nprefer to shop at Westwood , blue water, lakeside, birmingham bull ring, manchester trafford centre. Sorry, I get fed up with trying to spend mone in shops where the staff are crap, stock is crap, and they do not have a clue as to customer service. The only improvement you could make is to cover westwood cross so i do not get wet!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. Until theres a level playing field for car parking charges, free at Westwood X AND free in town centres, the public will drive to the out of town centres rather than pay the expensive parking costs and risk a fine if they stay a little longer than they thought.

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  5. Westwood Cross was intended to create jobs for local people and to keep revenue in the area rather than be lost to Canterbury and other cities.

    It would be interesting to do a survey of staff at Westwood to find out how many are locals and why they got the jobs rather than locals. I can recall in the early days two cases that come to mind of locals who lasted two weeks as they proved incapable of doing the job despite both having experience in town centre shops. They had no comprehension of what customer service means.

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  6. I can only speak for the book trade, which I understand, provided your product range is good and your prices are less than Westwood the customers sill come. Some products that aren’t available elsewhere, in our case local history, which although isn’t particularly profitable in itself attracts footfall helps too.

    When we lost what I estimate to be 20% of our shop sales to the internet we compensated for this by selling online, something which if one does badly can just make ones shop stock poor but if done well can be used enhance ones stock, moving on books that have been on the shelf too long.

    In Ramsgate I also notice that the supermarkets in the town are much busier than they used to be and several new shops have opened recently, what I can’t understand is why the situation seems to be so much worse in Margate.

    22.37 For most of us the towns are our environment, we live there and if we destroy them with our shopping choices we still have to live there, also making a car journey for all shopping and leisure just isn’t environmentally sustainable.

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  7. Millicent
    I think the Council need to justify why they intend to try and retain/develop retail premises in the Old Town & High St so we can have an open informed public debate. I do not think they can achieve this, we should see the statistics and assumptions made for their current strategy.
    Michael Ramsgate is clearely benefitting from the fast train effect
    I have found no difference in customer service between westwood cross and high streets. Some good some bad as with most things in life.
    Thanet Observer good point, also safety I know of several people whohave stopped using the car park under Somerfield in Margate because of anti-social behaviour.
    Michael agree with most of what you say will think on about why Ramsgate is doing better. Your last paragraph is spot on even though you do have a vested interest!
    Mark

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  8. The council seem to be spending a lot of money doing up the lower part of the high street in Margate and the old town and I don't remember the last labour council doing the same.

    Westwood Cross always seems to have lots of people there which means that people prefer it.

    You seem to have an attitude about coming into the 21st century for technology, but not for how people want to shop. Or perhaps you just like to bash the conservatives because you are labour.

    I think that the turner gallery will make a difference, and also the plans for dreamland that were in the paper the other day.

    They certainly couldn't do a worse job than the labour lot did to margate and northdown road when they were in charge.

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  9. Anon 17.54 It is fine to criticise Labour but your views will hold less weight,if you choose to hide behind anonymity.

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