We need to take an honest look at the town centre

By Ben Fitzgerald - 20 December 2018

CommunityOpinion and FeaturesBusiness

Take a walk through Swindon Town Centre and you can’t help but notice that the hard-working retail staff are facing an uphill struggle for survival.

I counted more than 30 empty shop units in the pedestrianised area alone  - and of those remaining, there are a high proportion of charity stores, short-term gift shops and bookmakers. While these are perfectly valid in their own right, they are not the type of stores that are likely to generate a shopping buzz or attract people from further afield to consider the town an exciting shopping destination.

Swindon town centre is not alone in having been hit hard by a combination of changing shopping habits, Brexit-fuelled economic uncertainty, stiff competition from alternative out of town attractions and high business rates combined with unhelpfully high car parking prices.

Given the cards stacked against them, it’s a tribute to the dogged determination of the town centre business owners who have been able to survive.

But does it have to be this way?  

Swindon town centre is also a place full of promise, innovative ideas and creative energy just bubbling beneath the surface.  There are some genuinely great things happening in the heart of Swindon that deserve attention and our praise.

Most recently we’ve seen the opening of The Crossing food court in the Brunel Centre. When I made a mid-week visit it was buzzing with visitors enjoying the diverse range of food options on offer - giving potential shoppers another reason to spend their hard-earned money in the heart of the town. 

Creative efforts have also been made to spruce up the town centre’s pedestrianised zones, with the introduction of attractive coloured lighting strips in the pavement, the creation of an open area at Wharf Green and a large display screen. 

We also have a great central library which replaced the awful mobile classroom that housed Swindon's Central Library for years. There is also the unique Swindon Museum of Computing and the former town hall which is home to Swindon Dance.

The Brunel Centre is also working hard to turn the fortunes of the town around - with efforts being made to create a safe and inviting shopping experience. And the recently developed Regent Circus has helped to breathe new life into the former Swindon College site - replacing an ageing 60s era building with a plush new development. But despite the huge efforts, the problem remains that Swindon Town Centre sits in the middle of what is referred to in planning circles as a 'donut development'.

It is surrounded by popular attractions - Swindon's Designer Outlet, the forthcoming Snowasis development, Regent Circus and Old Town. In addition, paying customers also have the choice of the North Swindon Orbital and Greenbridge - which have the effect of drawing paying customers away from the centre. And further afield, there are the undoubtedly attractive alternatives of Bath, Bristol, Cirencester and Oxford a relatively short drive away.

It's clear that on a strategic level, planners seem to have rolled out the red carpet to anyone willing to invest in Swindon - without a great deal of consideration as to the knock-on effect on the heart of Swindon itself. And now things appear to be at tipping point where last-ditch efforts are being made to resuscitate the town centre economy - including creating a more welcoming entrance from the railway station and reducing car parking charges.

But this is something that shopkeepers have been demanding for years - is this too little too late?

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