Report by Working Group for CLP Steering Group

Introduction

Even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic it was clear that town centres across the country were having to face new challenges. Shopping patterns are changing, while the demand for spaces for entertainment and relaxation continue to grow. In larger towns and cities the empty facades of former department stores bore witness to this trend, even before coronavirus. On-line shopping has become the "new normal" for many people, and, with the continuation of risk, there is a question as to whether shoppers are going to return to high streets in the same numbers as before. There are also questions about the different ways in which cities, large towns, shopping malls, and small towns are affected.
For a small town like Church Stretton, the question is bound to be about the extent to which the town is affected by wider national trends. And it is not just about the psychology of shopping; rents/leasing values and business rates will also have their effect on the landscape of town centres.
Spaces for food and relaxation have also been badly hit during the lockdown, but the enthusiasm for socialising seems to have been little dimmed, at least amongst the younger members of the population. It is a matter of speculation as to how long it will be before older people venture out to pubs and restaurants in the same numbers as before.
There are clearly questions as to how many businesses will remain viable after taking such a large financial hit over recent months, and the landscape of the town may well change because of this if nothing else. The loss of the town’s only remaining bank in May 2021 is an unwelcome blow to local traders and to the community at large.
The importance of tourism to the economic sustainability of the town must be emphasized. The key question, apart from how we build the attractiveness of the town as a destination, is how to manage this desired increase in footfall while preserving and enhancing those features of the town which make it attractive in the first place.
In determining how the community should react to what is happening at the present, we need to have some vision as to how the future might look, and included in this must be a vision of how the community would like it to look. What steps need to be taken to bring this about?
The Household Survey organised by the Community-Led Plan Steering Group at the start of 2020 gives much evidence about the perceptions and wishes of local residents. It was striking that when residents were asked for the one thing in the Strettons they most want to see improved, the layout of the town came top.
In addition, we have conducted street surveys in late summer, after the introduction by Shropshire Council of a one-way system and pavement widening, to gauge opinion about these changes and the possibility of more permanent alterations.
Church Stretton is well placed to address change, to meet challenges and to take advantage of opportunities. The strong sense of belonging to a community, the social cohesion, the level of support that people have shown for each other – all of which have been clearly evident during the Covid crisis – provide confidence that we can push ahead with the proposals outlined in this report, enhance the attractiveness of the place we love, and underpin the economic viability of the town.
"We are convinced that High Streets and Town Centres will survive and thrive in 2030, becoming activity based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities. Areas need to identify the role that best suits their specific characteristics, local strengths, culture and heritage. Fundamentally community must be at the heart of all High Streets and Town Centres in 2030." (House of Commons: Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee Report, 2019)

1. Trends
There has been a significant increase in the number of people relying on on-line purchasing, not just for their standard (previously supermarket) shopping, but also for other items. This is not just a matter of convenience, but also of price. Across the country, many retailers are now using their physical space principally as showrooms (backed up by their website), in the knowledge and hope that customers, after viewing, will buy on-line.
There has also been a significant increase in local shopping. This has been attributed firstly to people wishing to avoid crowded shopping malls, and queuing, and secondly to the increase in the number of people working from home. The projected increase in home-working makes the need for improved broadband provision more urgent.
Most commentators expect the change in patterns of working to consolidate in the future, with less commuting. Recent surveys have also suggested that a good proportion of shoppers intend to continue to do more shopping locally. This is particularly the case for food shopping, and for top-ups to the big on-line shop.
There are some indications that, as people have become used to social distancing, they welcome more space. This has implications for crowded high streets and town centres, with the implication that narrow pavements and parked cars are not now simply regarded as unattractive or inconvenient, but distinctly undesirable.
Before Covid, there was evidence of an increasing demand for town centres to become places for "life, work and recreation", rather than just for shopping. It remains to be seen how this will work out.

2. Supporting Evidence
(a) The results of the Residents Survey, published in March 2020, showed that while there was a strong desire to preserve the best of the town centre, there was much that could be done to make improvements.
In response to the question "What is the one thing in the Strettons you most wish to see conserved?", the appearance and character of the town was the second most frequently mentioned topic.
In response to the question "What is the one thing in the Strettons you most want to see improved? "Town Layout" was the most frequently mentioned topic.
In response to the question "What is missing in the Strettons that you would like to see made available?", a large number of suggestions were made under different headings.

The full results of the survey can be downloaded on www.strettonsclp.org.uk

(b) It had been intended to conduct two street surveys, with a random sample of people approached on separate dates. Adverse weather and then the second lockdown prevented the completion of the second survey.
The results are given in the Appendices.

(c) In addition, the working group has taken note of reports on town centres elsewhere in the country, and of opinion pieces from professionals involved in retail and planning.
A selection is given in the Appendices.

3. Challenges
The biggest questions for a town like Church Stretton are to assess the extent to which national trends will affect its own landscape, and to determine what measures could be taken to ensure the on-going sustainability of the town, serving both local residents and tourists. What changes should we make to address changing shopping habits, changes in working patterns, changes in technology, changes in leisure activities? Are there measures that we can take to keep us ahead of the game, rather than simply waiting for things to happen?
Finance is also a major challenge. It is clear that, nationally, we are going to be living with a large public debt for some years, and that national government is going to be particular as to how development money is committed in the future. There has also been little apparent willingness to address the continuing problem of local government finances. It is unlikely that the savage cuts to local authority support in the last ten years will be reversed. Funds that Shropshire Council had available for town centre improvements eight years ago, are no longer there. Although, the Council can still raise funding as a trusted borrower for large projects such as the Shrewsbury NW Relief Road, its current priorities do not include the needs of a small town such as Church Stretton.
The projected  increase in the number of elderly residents makes the need for a safe pedestrian environment and suitable disabled access a matter of some urgency.
It is also clear that the Plan will need to balance the wishes of residents to preserve the best of the appearance and character of the town centre with the strong desire to make improvements, catering for both the needs of current residents and for the ongoing sustainability of the town itself.

4. Opportunities
The Community-Led Plan itself, and the process of compiling it, offers the chance for the community to come together to agree ways forward. The reaction of residents to Covid, and the extraordinary demonstrations of neighbourliness are evidence both of togetherness in the face of a crisis, and of positive attitudes, of a desire to do what is needed.
The Residents Survey showed a strong desire to preserve the best aspects of life in the Strettons, to address the needs of the community, and to make improvements for the future.
Changes in attitudes and habits as a result of Covid – shopping, working, leisure – reinforce the need to bolster a localism agenda.

5. What the Town Centre might look like in twenty years
The town centre is, to a greater extent than now, a place for life, work and recreation, where people can shop socialise, and relax in a traffic-free setting.
In a town which boasts a variety of architecture spanning the ages and with 88 listed buildings, it is good to see that as a result of the town having a suite of Design Guides, the fabric of the buildings has been maintained along with the shop frontages, and visitors can take time to immerse themselves in history.
People can move about in comfort and safety, in an unhurried way, giving them time and space for window shopping and purchasing in a diverse range of retail premises. Wider pavements, together with improved accessibility to premises has removed difficulties for the elderly and those with handicaps, while changes to layout and an increase in parking spaces on Sandford Avenue have made it easier for them to park their vehicles close to their destination.
The one-way system for traffic, and the widening of pavements have changed the balance of use between vehicles and pedestrians, improving safety and giving the place a more relaxed and unhurried feel, as well as reducing air pollution.
The pedestrianised Town Square is a place to sit, stand and talk with neighbours and friends, or make use of cafes and restaurants. The addition of seats and planters have turned it from a car park into a social space, which is also used regularly for events. It has become a real town centre.
In the same way, the appearance of the main car park in Lion Meadow has been softened with trees, shrubs and planters.
Improved signage and the re-location of the Visitor Centre have helped make the town even more attractive to visitors, who are now guided past and into the shops and cafes as they wander through the town. Improvements in publicity and marketing have raised awareness of the town as a tourist destination, and improved links with the National Trust and AONB have both helped solve issues of overcrowding while also drawing Cardingmill Valley visitors into exploring the charms of our small market town.
The creation of a Heritage and Geology Centre, celebrating the town’s unique environment, has provided another attraction.
Regular markets, and events, together with pop-up stalls and shops also draw people into the town, as it is recognised that there is always something going on, or something to discover.
The mix of housing, retail, leisure facilities and offices in the town gives it a vibrancy throughout the day and into the evening.
Although footfall has increased, to the benefit of local traders, change has been brought about in a sensitive way, preserving the traditional atmosphere while enhancing the appearance and attractiveness of the town.

6. What we should do now

In order to enhance the economic viability and resilience of the Strettons, the following proposals are made:
a. To boost the attractiveness of the Strettons as a tourist destination by improving the shopping experience and leisure facilities
        i. create a social space in the Square by removing parking, and providing seating, planters and quality paving;
        ii. create a one-way system in the Town Centre, in order to prioritise pedestrians and to enable people to shop, relax and socialise in a comfortable and safe setting not dominated by traffic;
        iii. level the High Street (no pavements), Square and Church Way, with different zones indicated by surface texture or colour;
        iv. consult on the full pedestrianisation of the High Street;
        v. increase the number of parking spaces in Sandford Avenue by using echelon parking on the south side;
        vi. press for one-hour free parking in car parks;
        vii. ensure that all parking areas have a sufficient number of designated disabled spaces;
        viii. encourage all businesses to improve disabled access to their premises;
        ix. encourage owners of new shops to check with the Shop Front Design Guide for advice on what is required when erecting new fascias, choosing paint colours & putting advertising materials in windows;
        x. encourage the provision of EV charging points in all car parks;
        xi. increase the number of cycle parking spaces, and provide pumps;
        xii. improve signage to local attractions such as Rectory Field;
        xiii. soften the appearance of the Lion Meadow Car Park with landscaping (trees, planters, and seating);
        xiv. move the Visitor Information Centre to a more central location;
        xv. Create a "digital group" (Town Council and Chamber of Trade) to explore signage, publicity and marketing.
b.      To provide for and encourage additional opportunities by:
        i. allowing pop-up markets on days other than Thursdays;
        ii. extending area of market along Church Way;
        iii. negotiating with landlords to allow the temporary use of empty premises for pop-up shops, arts events, etc.
        iv. encouraging the use of the town square for events;
        v. establishing a working group to consider the creation of a Heritage and Geology Centre.

 7. Appendices
    i. Residents Survey
The full results of the survey can be downloaded on www.strettonsclp.org.uk

    ii. Street surveys
Two surveys were conducted, with a random sample of people approached on separate dates. The results:

Survey 1
Survey carried out by the Co op and in the High Street on the mornings of 23rd, 25th, and 30th June 2020.
Sample size 110 people. Mostly residents with a small number of regular visitors.

COMMENTS

  • Everyone parked happily in Lion Meadow 20 year ago when it was free.

  • The Co-op give vouchers for parking but do not advertise the fact.

  • One resident who lives in the High Street was against the one-way system as he said that cars try to nip through the wrong way if they think the road is clear and that makes it dangerous for pedestrians.

  • Cycles also go the wrong way.

  • One firefighter was against the one-way system as he thinks it will lengthen his journey if he is called out.

  • The system is the wrong way round.

  • The signposting makes no sense (x2)

  •            Love the town centre and the Co op.

  • Have herring bone parking in Sandford Avenue (x3)

  • A shopkeeper in the High Street said she had seen five people fall off the pavement in the past three years as they stood back to read signs.

  • Street parking should be stopped on Central Avenue (x2).

  • Better signs for the railway station.

  • The trader who runs the fruit and veg stall was concerned that their lorry, which they park by the church, could not turn right into the High Street easily. They used to turn left before the one-way system was installed.

  • The market was better in Lion Meadow.  

  • There should be a one-way system round the town centre.

  • Put benches in the square.

          Square should become a social area (x2)

          Will not shop in CS if one-way introduced permanently

          Need pick-up points if one-way system permanent

          No need for traffic lights (x4)

          Character of town matters

         Would want wider pavements if parent of small children or pets (x2)

          Traders need on-street parking

          Stop parking by Bank corner on High St

  • This is a chance to rejuvenate the High St. – need to think creatively.       

  • Traders said they would leave if yellow lines were put in Sandford  Avenue. It would be the end of the world. But they are still there.     

          Should be free parking for the first hour

          High St. should be pedestrianized (x4)

          One way system should be other way round (x3)

          Residents parking should be free (x3)

          One-way system causes problems with and for deliveries

          Keeping people safe must be the priority

          Better signposting needed

          More cycle parking spaces

          Need to sort out parking for NT visitors

Survey 2
Adverse weather and then the second lockdown prevented the completion of the second survey. Of the few people approached the overwhelming majority were in favour of the one-way system continuing, and of the square being used for events rather than parking. People liked the "community-feel" of the market.

Parking space survey :- A survey of the number of parking spaces available in Church Stretton was conducted in August 2020:

8. Background reading



Working Group members: David Howard, Charles Simmonds, Jim Kent, Hilary Claytonsmith, David Wilks

David Howard
18.11.2020