Headlines about local authorities spending their High Street Innovation Fund money on ramps and Christmas lights – or, in many cases, nothing at all – has unsurprisingly raised eyebrows. But what do councils need to do to bring our empty shops back into use?
Intended to reduce the number of vacant shops on the high street, the Fund awarded £100,000 each to 100 areas (listed here) that had missed out in the first wave of Portas Pilot bidding a year ago.
Some authorities, like Wyre Forest, have used the funds to offer business rates relief to new independent retailers. Similarly, Shepway is spending money on improving the appearance of empty properties in Folkestone, which can blight an area if left unchecked.
Though councils are able to use their £100,000 as they see fit, paying for things that should exist anyway (like Christmas lights), or that have only a tenuous link to high street vitality (like station ramps) rather go against the Fund’s intended spirit of ‘innovation’.
So what should the cash be used for? Certainly, offering practical help to make it easier to open new shops, like in Wyre Forest, is crucial. More than anything else, you need interesting, distinctive and useful shops to give people a reason to visit the high street.
Alongside, you need to build an overall buzz to keep people coming back. That’s where using the Fund to support and promote quality markets, events or pop-up art spaces can work really well.
And our town centres have got to be easy and enjoyable places to use too. Making streets and public spaces more appealing – such as through creating pocket parks – is one way in which the Fund can make a difference. Investing in free off-peak parking – to prevent parking costs being a barrier to shoppers using the high street – is another.
With only 7% of the Fund spent to date, today’s headlines are a prompt for local retailers, residents and groups to take action. If you’re in one of the 100 areas, search your council website for ‘High Street Innovation Fund’ to see what they’re spending it on, and whether it’s something that your business or organisation can benefit from.
And if they’re not spending it yet, it’s our job to chivvy them along – making a strong and passionate case for the successful local high street that we deserve.