High streets: How can a town like Bridgend regenerate and increase footfall?

Sharp End Presenter Rob Osborne took a trip to Bridgend to see how the town centre will be regenerated

People in Wales have been using town centres and high streets less and less amid the rise in online retail.

Footfall is down 44%, according to the Federation of Small Businesses - and the covid pandemic accelerated the closure of some retail stores.

Once a bustling market town, Bridgend’s town centre has seen more and more businesses shutting up shop - with around one in five premises laying empty.

So how can Bridgend - and many similar towns across Wales - bring life back into its town centres?

Bridgend County Borough Council's (BCBC) Town Centre Regeneration Masterplan hopes to tackle this.

"We thought, how do we bring people in to town?" Cllr Neelo Farr, the cabinet member for regeneration and economy, said.

"Bridgend College came to us saying they want land so (the police station) is ready to be demolished to bring a new state-of-the-art college for all age groups which will be a creative hub and increase footfall by thousands."

But what can be done about empty shops in the town?

Cllr Farr said: "We do have an empty property action plan and BCBC offers support to bring those properties back into use.

"We've got about 10 new shops in the market place supported by BCBC grants. We've got good transport links into Bridgend, train and bus station that's an active hub."

As well as bringing town's college into the centre, free wifi is now on offer in the centre and the Rhiw car park offers three hours free parking to entice visitors.Is it enough to bring people into town centres? The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says towns need a strong identity to thrive.

Rob Basini, the FSB's South Wales Development Manager, said: "If we think of high profile success stories within Wales like Cardigan, Treorchy, which won high street of the year a few years ago, Cowbridge, Narberth - these are all towns that have created a strong identity."

Bridgend police station will soon be demolished to make way for a new college. Credit: Sharp End

The FSB wants decision makers to alleviate immediate cost pressures that businesses are facing through a reduction in business rates.

Mr Basini added: "Strong, clear plans for each town with input from key groups is essential.

"Local authorities need to take a lead, community groups and customers need to feed into these plans and businesses themselves. This input is essential to understand what issues exist and what assets the town has. It's essential that towns are diverse in what we offer."

A Bridgend restaurant owner says a challenge has been creating a night-time vibe. Credit: Sharp End

Atif Iqbal owns three businesses in Bridgend, including Greek restaurant, Tholos.

He said: "The idea came about in lockdown, because me and my business partner tended to go to Swansea or Cardiff for food, so we thought there was a gap in the market for good food in Bridgend."

He says there are "massive challenges" to opening a business in Bridgend, such as footfall, creating a nighttime vibe and getting locals to realise there is this prescence in the town.

"I hear the older generation say 'there's nothing in Bridgend' and with some provisions like banks closing, you see footfall falling and charity shops opening instead which has affected the offering," he said.

"But business rates have come down, which is helping. And with the town centre not open for traffic between 10am and 6pm, opening up the car park in the Rhiw for three hours has helped.

"We are attracting customers from outside of Bridgend, so if we can get a reputation for the food-side and hospitality side it'll draw a different type of customer to the town.

"If you look at European towns, they have a lot of people living within them so that would help."

'Regenerating our town centres is complex'

The Welsh Government has published a Town Centres Position Statement, setting out the key challenges facing town centres across Wales and a series of actions aimed at addressing them.

Julie James, Minister for Climate Change, said: “We want towns across Wales to be the beating heart of Welsh communities, where people can access services, shops, communal and cultural space.

“Regenerating our town centres is complex and will only happen if we have a joint understanding of the issues they face. These include the increase in out-of-town development reliant on private car transport, the growth in online shopping, and the withdrawal of essential services.

“Our Transforming Towns programme is designed to help reverse this decline, with £100m over the next three years to reinvent towns across Wales. Today’s statement will contribute to these efforts and we will continue to work with local authorities and town centre stakeholders to regenerate and transform towns across Wales.”

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