High streets continue to suffer from a lack of Christmas cheer – LGA survey

LGA media release 21 December 2012

Confidence on the high street remains low as Britain prepares for what is traditionally the busiest shopping weekend of the year, according to new research published today.

The Local Government Association's annual Christmas town centre survey has shown that, once again, the festive season has failed to provide a boost for the high street, with 84 per cent of town centre managers stating that the level of confidence among shoppers in their personal financial positions has either not improved or has got worse compared with this time last year.

The particularly cold and wet start to this winter may also be taking its toll on the number of shoppers visiting town centres. Forty-one per cent of town centre managers who took part reported fewer people hitting the high street compared to this time last year. In 2011, 35 per cent of town centre managers reported a decline in footfall.

Town centre managers were also asked whether they thought consumer confidence in high streets would improve in 2013. The results show a glimmer of hope in some areas, with one in five respondents expecting things to improve compared to just one in 20 last year, and almost one in three anticipating the number of visitors to high streets to increase over the next 12 months. However, 48 per cent stated that they expect little to change over the next year and 29 per cent felt that things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.

Despite the poor outlook overall, councils are doing their bit to draw in the crowds. In Mid-Devon, for example, the council has awarded a total of £150,000 to seven projects to help make the county's town centres more vibrant, including schemes to introduce rickshaws, use empty shops to host temporary exhibitions and setting up street markets. In Brighton, the council is providing one-to-one training for independent shops on how to create inspiring window displays, and in North Tyneside, a free ‘Drop and shop' childcare scheme has been introduced to offer local parents a chance to do their Christmas shopping unhindered by their kids. 

Key finds from the report showed that:

  • Nine out of 10 councils have created a festive atmosphere by putting up lights and Christmas trees and such like.
  • Fifty-five per cent of councils arranged for special Christmas markets to take place to help boost footfall.
  • Just over half of councils (53 per cent) have introduced free / subsidised parking over the festive period.
  • A third of councils (33 per cent) have helped businesses by allowing extensions in opening hours.
  • Support for local businesses increased by 12 per cent with 39 per cent of respondents stating that their councils now have programmes in place to help promote independent shops and restaurants.

Councillor Peter Box, Chairman of the LGA's Economy and Transport Board, said:

"Last year, 86 per cent of those who took part in our survey thought there would be no improvement in consumer confidence on the high street in 2012 and it would seem from today's results that they were right on the money. Worryingly, the outlook for next year is not much brighter. People's shopping habits are changing, and we need new creative approaches to revitalising our town centres.

"Christmas is obviously a very important time for the high street. It's therefore really encouraging to see so many local authorities working with local businesses over the Christmas period to help draw in the crowds by putting on special events, extending opening hours and offering discounts on public transport and parking.

"Although things like Christmas lights and decorations visibly highlight how local authorities are helping our high streets, councils play a central role in their local economy all year round. For example, 85 per cent of councils now host regular markets, which according to more than half of town centre managers, have really made a difference in boosting the number of shoppers visiting their towns.  

"Every town centre is different, it is crucial that local councils, businesses and the community have the levers to adapt the local high street offer to meet local needs and opportunities. If we are going to improve the outlook for the high street long-term, councils need new powers over borrowing, licensing and planning to effectively tackle barriers to growth at a local level. Urgent action is required if we are going to help our high streets turn a corner in 2013."

The LGA is calling for the Government to take action in five key areas to help councils stimulate growth at a local level and revitalise town centres:

  • Government must use the Growth and Infrastructure Bill to lift restrictions on local authority borrowing, freeing councils to invest in infrastructure projects that will create jobs and kick-start local economies.
  • Councils should be given new powers to tackle the clustering of certain types of businesses such as betting shops, fast-food takeaways and late-night off licences, and limit the power of the Planning Inspectorate to overturn local community decisions.
  • While councils are pleased that some proceeds from future business rates can now be kept for local investment, further incentives should be introduced to encourage councils and local businesses to work together, such as increasing the number of Business Improvement Districts.
  • Red tape should be cut to help councils use their resources better to keep streets clean and safe. This could include having greater powers to tackle issues such as littering, metal theft and fly tipping.
  • Councils need greater local control over transport funding, such as bus routes. The existing Bus Service Operator Grants – which see public money given to bus operators even on profitable routes – could instead be used to target new bus routes to best support local high streets.

Christmas activity case studies

Mid-Devon District Council has been running a competition for local businesses and community groups to submit ideas on how to make the county's town centres more vibrant. A total of £150,000 has been awarded to fund seven projects, including the introduction of rickshaws in Tiverton, using empty shops to host temporary 'pop-up' exhibitions and a street market at the Bullring in Cullompton which is backed by local businesses.

Mole Valley District Council has collaborated with 30 local independent businesses and attractions to create the Dorking Christmas Crawl, where shoppers can follow a special map around the town and collect stamps for participating shops for the chance to win a Christmas hamper worth over £1,000. This is part of the nationwide ‘Celebrate an Independent Christmas' campaign.

Derbyshire Dales District Council is providing free parking for shoppers across the district from 1 December to help boost footfall on the high street. This will be the fifth year in a row that Derbyshire Dales have had free car parking measures in place.  

London Borough of Lewisham has been running special features in its magazine to highlight the range of unusual and affordable gifts on sale this Christmas in the borough's diverse range of independent local shops. There are also pop-up festive shops in Forest Hill, Sydenham and Kirkdale, special winter-themed events at a local art gallery and a young traders market providing opportunities for Lewisham's enterprising young talent. 

Chorley Council kicked off the festive season with a spectacular Christmas lights switch-on event with local sports stars including three medal-winning Paralympian athletes and rugby Super League's top try-scorer of 2012. From 14 December to 6 January there will also be a giant 100ft Ferris wheel in the town centre to help draw in the crowds.

North Tyneside Council has backed a project run by the Whitley Bay Chamber of Trade, in partnership with the Splat Centre in Whitley Bay town centre, to offer shoppers 90 minutes of free childcare for kids aged between three months and 12 years. The ‘Drop and shop' scheme is available on Thursdays and Fridays in the run up to Christmas.

Brighton and Hove City Council is providing one-to-one training to independent shops as part of its 'Dressed for success' scheme which helps retailers create inspiring window displays and attract shoppers for the festive period.

Gloucester City Council is working with the cathedral, the Guildhall and the city's various museums to put on whole range of special events. There will also be a Christmas parade and a Victorian market at Gloucestershire Quays.


Author: LGA Media Office
Contact: LGA Media Office, Telephone: 020 7664 3333

Notes to editors

The Local Government Association conducted an online survey of all members of the Association of Town Centre Management. Fieldwork took place between Monday 3 and Friday 17 December 2012 and achieved 85 responses out of 638 contacts.

A summary of the findings are available on request from: research@local.gov.uk

17 February 2015

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