Belgian city puts shunned UK retail plan to good effect

A plan designed to revive British retailers is being put to good effect – on the streets of Belgium.

A 2013 report made a number of recommendations on how to help UK retailers, but the proposals were largely ignored.

But the city of Roeselare in Flanders picked up on the idea and is starting to see the benefits.

“I was very inspired five years ago when I read the review,” Mayor Kris Declercq told ITV News. “I needed some big reforms and shock therapy for our shop owners.”

The report, by retailer Bill Grimsey, made recommendations around areas including leadership, funding, business rates and parking.

Ideas put into action in Roeselare – home to around 60,000 people - include:

  • Free 30-minute parking using smart sensors

  • Fining landlords if premises are left vacant for more than a year and offering cheap rents to new businesses

  • Free pram hire

  • A courier system to take shopping off your hands

  • An app offering reduced prices in the city and a gift card that can only be used in Roeselare

  • Free WiFi

  • More green spaces

The changes have been made possible by investment from the local government and working in unison with retailers.

The high street still faces challenges – shops do still close in Roeselare – and there have been teething problems. For example, the courier service via a phone app is being put on hold because of concerns that people who show up to take shopping off people’s hands are not legitimate.

Despite this, the changes have proved popular with many people.

The mayor says there is no “miracle solution” to solve the woes many high streets face, but shoppers are happy with Roeselare’s face lift.

Mr Declercq said: “It is good that a city like us has found inspiration in the UK to see how the same problems can generate creative solutions.

“We’re doing well, we’re doing better than other cities in Flanders, but still it’s a challenge every day. But by mixing measures, like subsidies, like giving investment incentives, we’ve seen in one-and-a-half years more than 28 new shops."

He added: “It’s important when you want to change your city you don’t do it alone.”

Bill Grimsey, who wrote the 2013 review, said there was a uniqueness to Roeselare that makes it attractive to shoppers, whilst many UK high streets are “clones”.

He believes the city has flourished because it has put a “complete” plan in place, something he says is lacking in many parts of the UK.

“No methodology’s been developed and no concerted joined-up effort’s been put in place and until that happens you’re not going to get the right change taking place,” Mr Grimsey said.

“There are so many opportunities to make our town centres attractive places to be. The way we do that is by having a holistic plan and not doing it piecemeal, so we have to bring it up the agenda.”