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Do we need town centres anymore?

Martin Warren, ICAEW Regional Director for Wales and the South West examines the need of the 'town centre' in the modern world.

Unfortunately I am old enough to remember when the high street of the town, village or even city suburb where you lived was the centre of activity for everyone. There would be at least one big general store, like Woolworths, and a series of core shops such as the baker, butcher, haberdasher, grocer, hardware stores, newsagent and post office with a myriad of niche independents around them. Alongside the retailers were the local professional services including banks, doctors, chemists, estate agents and legal and accounting practices. This was a logical way of life then with many people living in walking distance of the high street and able to shop and conduct their broader business at the same time.

How times have changed! First of all the high street was never built to accommodate the car and “out of town” shopping centres emerged where parking was easy and free. These centres included giant stores which provided all the retail offerings under one roof and undercut the local grocer and butcher as well as providing a one stop shop for all your retail needs. Why would anyone with a car use the high street?

Then the internet came along allowing customers to browse the world for whatever they want, find the most competitive price and have it delivered to their door.

The consequences are that the larger stores have rapidly disappeared from the high street. Woolworths has long since gone along with most department style stores, even from some of the bigger town centres. Banks have closed in favour of internet banking and legal and accounting professional services have moved to business parks. The independent grocer, haberdasher and hardware stores are dying breeds and only a few niche shops like butchers hang on by offering a quality local service.

The footfall on high streets and in town centres has fallen dramatically over the years and their purpose is increasingly uncertain. Yet we continue, it seems, to try and maintain them. The Chancellor in his last budget announced cuts in business rates in England in a bid to save Britain’s high street and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Wales has produced an interesting report entitled “The Future of our Welsh Towns” which calls for investment.

There may well be an argument on social grounds for a community hub around the high street but I fear the logic of seeking to regenerate it as an economic centre is much harder to argue.

However, there are a large number of small chartered accountants practices based in these towns and high streets which we would wish to continue and thrive. I am therefore seeking to bring these members together through the recreation of Town Groups across the region.

If that is you and you would be interested in joining such a group please let me know.