It is Great British High Street judging time again. One of the benefits of this is we learn a lot about towns that are changing rather than dying.

The structure of the Awards, with recognition for Rising Stars as well as Champions, means that entries have come from small and large towns and we also get to see initiatives that are in their early stages of adoption.

Simon Quin was the Institute judge for the Awards and went to visit three Rising Star entries: Yarm, Barrow and Rochdale. What follows are short insights into some key initiatives which show how each town is taking steps to ensure its sustainability. No assumption about judging should be made from these as that was a more extensive process.

Yarm is located on the River Tees. It has a population of just under 10,000. There were some interesting things happening in the town.

  • Local businesses have formed a Community Interest Company to boost the town centre. Some 100 businesses are involved. They currently raise no direct funding from members but work together to put on events and provide business support. In response to this, Stockton Borough Council, has seconded a full time manager for an initial 6 month period, now extended for another 3, who works with the CIC and across the town.
  • Yarm School is actually located on the high street and short of a good-sized hall for school assembly they built a state of the art auditorium for the purpose. This has a capacity of 750 and alongside a smaller venue on the site is used for school purposes but also nearly every weekend has concerts, plays, talks, pantomimes, as well as opera relays open to the whole community. Yarm’s eating and drinking venues benefit from this venue in such close proximity.
  • Yarm has also faced the challenge of banks closing but two innovative solutions have been pioneered in the town centre. Newcastle Building Society moved its office into the town library. Such is the success of this that they are now doing the same in other towns. Barclays has also retained its presence as the last bank in the town centre but with a redesigned bank that offers space for communities, computer access, local business promotion, community workshops and extended Saturday opening.
  • A local network of around 70 home-based workers has been established and identifies times and locations in some of the town’s coffee bars when people can meet and work with others as desired. Some of these people have also been involved in offering digital skills training for local shops which have enabled them to set up social media sites and have an online presence.
  • Yarm’s recently opened pop-up shop in the middle of the high street has space for 6 businesses who change on a daily basis. This includes community businesses raising funds for charity. Run by a local party planner entrepreneur, it ensures a changing offer in the town centre.
  • Yarm welcomed the Google bus this summer and over 30 businesses received digital training. We met a very enthusiastic retailer who has an online presence as a result. Local coaching is continuing to provide longer term support. We also met an originally online bike retailer that now has an attractive high street shop and seen sales growth as a result.

Barrow-in-Furness is in North West England. It serves a borough population of around 66,000 which has almost 40 miles of coastline. It is still a significant manufacturing town.  

  • Businesses in the town centre came together to establish a BID in September 2016. It was established with an emphasis on marketing the town, improving access, developing local pride, establishing an evening economy and building an effective partnership.
  • The BID promoted a high profile Soap Box Derby which was held through the town centre in June 2019. It attracted 14,000 people to the town centre and reportedly contributed £350,000 boost to the local economy. Local businesses and local schools were involved in entering teams. The event will be run again in 2020.
  • The BID is also working with community groups and charities to promote events in the town centre and making grants of up to £1,000 available. A recent success was a Youthability and Leonard Cheshire Society event that brought music and dance to the high street.
  • A new website and supporting 20 page booklet promotes the town and its attractions, including event listings and heritage.
  • The BID has allocated £50,000 over 3 years for premises grants for BID levy payers. A maximum of £1,000 can be sought as a grant. This fund is helping new businesses to open in the town centre and improving the streetscape.
  • An unusual scheme is using the reverse of traffic control signs in some of the side roads of the main shopping street to provide business directories and encourage exploration along the side roads where many retailers are located.
  • Both the Council and the BID are looking at longer term plans to improve the environment and circulation in the town centre.

Rochdale town centre serves a Metropolitan Borough with a population approaching 220,000. In recent years £250 million of investment has been made in the town centre and a further £150 million is planned for Phase 2.

  • The investment to date has seen a new transport interchange, new sixth form college, new civic offices and central library with conference facilities, public realm works and other development. A new £80 million shopping and leisure centre is under construction in the centre.
  • Having had a Town Centre Partnership for many years, a Rochdale BID has recently been established.
  • The Council has support packages to attract new independent retailers into the town centre, and more than 30 have opened since 2015. The support continues through Business Rate discounts for the first three years.
  • The town centre has an excellent legacy of fine and in some cases outstanding historic buildings. A Heritage Action Zone is encouraging mixed use reoccupation of a former retail dominated street whilst plans are well advanced for the refurbishment of the magnificent Town Hall and the creation of a new public square.
  • The wider regeneration of Rochdale includes hosting Dippy the Dinosaur in 2020 which will attract thousands of visitors to the town. Trails, programmes and associated activities will encourage visitors to see the town as well as the dinosaur and encourage interest in science by the many planned school visits.
  • Encouraging exploration of the town centre was a key part of Rochdale Uprising, an international street art festival in August 2019 that has created a legacy of large iconic murals from world-leading artists on some of the town’s previously less attractive buildings.
  • Rochdale BID has also pioneered a new tour of the town. If you want to see what the town has to offer, go explore at http://rochdale360.co.uk/.

As we hope you can tell from this brief report, it is clear that high streets and town centres have a future where people care about them. Each of these towns is doing other things as well that are making a difference. Each faces challenges but by working in partnership, they are able to respond and in some cases come up with unique or innovative solutions. In each of these three towns, the business community is playing an important role and taking ownership of issues alongside the local authority and the wider community. Thanks Great British High Street for this opportunity to see examples of what is happening and to the hosts and many community members we met in each location who were bubbling with enthusiasm.

Art is important to town centres - the photo above is one of 12 murals now in Rochdale and the preview photo is handpaintings of Yarm high street buildings on rocks.