What is the future for the Welsh high street?

The number of stores closing has reached 30% in some Welsh cities. Credit: Wales This Week

A retail expert is calling on businesses on the high street to evolve. Independent retail consultant Kate Hardcastle says that the high street will need to evolve to help it survive in the future, and offer a wider range of experiences to consumers. Her advice comes at a critical time for many retailers. The number of empty shops on some Welsh high streets has reached 30 per cent.

The high street is under pressure from a number of factors. The rise of on-line shopping has put many under pressure, as digital forms of delivery replace physical purchases on the high street. The rise of out of town retail parks, with ample free parking, have also eroded trade on the high street. However some retailers have told us that they believe changes made to the layout of many high streets over the years, such as pedestrianisation, have damaged trade.

"Pedestrianisation does not work, it's not rocket science, we need cars. At the end of the day, if you could allow cars onto the high street and get back to how it was you could turn major town and cities around and it wouldn't take a lot, because the car is here to stay." Michael Turner, Butcher, Newport Market.

In Colwyn Bay, the owners of a clothing shop on Station Road believe pedestrianisation has made it difficult for some customers to reach their shop.

“I think the new thinking now is that we would like to see de-pedestrianisation, not taking it all up, but perhaps bringing in half hour parking, to pull up outside the shop. We probably get an older clientele.” Aiden Healy, Manshop, Colwyn Bay.

“When they first did it there was quite nice red brick, but when you look at it now it’s so boring, that grey, it’s dismal.” Colin Curran, Manshop, Colwyn Bay.

Sustrans, a charity that promotes walking, cycling and public transport say they have research that shows less car use can be beneficial to a town centre.

“Shoppers who come by public transport on foot or on bike spend more than those who come by car and come more often, because they want something different. They value a good quality pedestrian environment and they value a good mix of shops.” Lee Waters, Sustrans Cymru.

There are other concerns amongst business owners on the high street. They would like to see assistance with business rates, a type of property tax businesses pay to occupy a shop. As Iestyn Davies from the Federation of Small Businesses explains, business rates can have a big impact on costs.

“One of the key costs you face as a retail business is your business rates and your rent, and these two factors go hand in hand, so if we can continue to offer relief to small businesses based on the value of their premises then that’s clearly good, but in the long term we need to find a way in which the tax reflects how profitable their businesses are, how much money they’re actually making on the high street.” Iestyn Davies, Federation of Small Businesses.

Planning is another area of concern. Changes could be made to make it easier for the high street to evolve.

"Ultimately planning is key to us designing the kinds of town centres that we want. So we must make it easier to have change of use. If we are going to take some stock out of retail and convert it into residential we need to make sure that can be done swiftly and efficiently and can promote footfall within the town centre." Iestyn Davies, Federation of Small Businesses.

Whether the high street survives or not could be up to us, says Chris Parry from Cardiff Metropolitan University.

"We need to decide do we want the high street to survive, in it's current form that's not possible. Maybe as a society as a whole we want more entertainment and relaxation on the high street, and that's what it will develop into. And maybe what the Welsh Government should be doing is leading on finding out what is the future of the high street?". Chris Parry, Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Wales This Week: High Street Blues, 8.00pm, 25th March 2013, ITV Cymru Wales.