Swindon’s Town Centre, is not alone in having to rapidly adapt and overcome a host of economic and social challenges that threaten the highstreet as the hub of the community.
Growing economic uncertainty, radically changing shopping habits, and fierce competition both from within the town and further afield have focussed the minds of those in charge of shaping the response to these factors on the urgent need for creative solutions.
One of the key players in steering Swindon through these choppy waters in the years ahead is Di Powell, the Chief Executive of inSwindon BID:
"A Business Improvement District (BID) is a business-led initiative, funded by its members.
They pay a levy which is based on the rateable value of their property. When there’s an appetite to set up a BID then there is a ballot that’s formed within a predefined geographical area and the businesses vote on whether they want that BID or not, based on a business plan.
“We work really closely with Swindon Borough Council as a strategic partner and we manage the public realm on their behalf. It’s important to say what’s within our gift to change and what isn’t.”
Di explained that key town centre stakeholders include Swindon Borough Council, First Investments which owns the Brunel and Aberdeen Life which owns the Parade and Regent Circus.
Drawing together these various groups and encouraging greater partnership and sharing best practice is one of the key roles of inSwindon BID which represents the interests of almost 500 different town centre businesses.
We will deal locally with the Brunel Centre manager and the Parade and the Regent Circus managers and their marketing teams as well, so we are literally talking as a whole about the town centre.
We can’t set policy and we don’t make planning decisions - we certainly can’t affect what’s happening in the highstreets across the UK or locally. But we can play a big part in adapting locally to these challenges.
Perception is the key word for me - the perception of the town centre really concerns me and we work really hard to try and change that perception in terms of what the BID does and the strategic partners because we don’t want people slating the town.
Yes we do have some empty units, but if you look at Havelock Street, it is completely full with no empty units there and it’s full of all independent retailers. Our vacancy rate is below national average.
We should celebrate what we have got and shine a torch on the things that are really great and positive about our town.
One of the major resources that our businesses value is our street team. We have four street team ambassadors. They are the eyes and ears of the town centre working extremely closely with businesses, with the local authority, the police.
Their role is ambassadorial - they are on hand to help visitors to the town. They carry out a patrol every morning to ensure that the town centre is welcoming and safe for shoppers
And they are there to support our businesses in the town and to look out for anything that might need attention, it could be a cracked paving slab or a bench that needs cleaning up. It’s only a small team but they do an amazing job - one that largely goes unseen.
Our street team ambassadors operate a radio which gives them direct contact between the businesses and ourselves it’s sharing that intelligence - it really helps drive down crime in the high street - a lot of it is prevention so deterring thefts.
We live and work here but having our dedicated street team out there provides that visible deterrent and I think in terms of the success they have had in terms of dealing with antisocial behaviour - our street team know these individuals and however you want to phrase it, they do build up a relationship with those street drinkers, homeless people. We are very often a conduit to helping those homeless people and signposting them to appropriate services.
We also have taxi marshalls who work on a Friday and Saturday night - they are an extension of our street team - and their job is to get people safely into a taxi and home.
We also have a caretaker and while the majority of the town centre is the responsibility of the council, we can provide a top up service though the week as we have a caretaker who works part time. You will regularly see him cleaning the benches and litter picking and removing the smaller pieces of graffiti. We work closely with the police - we suggested that they set up a community policing hub on a temporary basis last year. They loved the idea and it was so successful that they are going to bring it back. The idea was to bring into use some of the empty units - to have a regular police presence as part of community engagement.
I think it’s no secret that local councils up and down the country are finding it tough - they are finding that their reserves are diminished because of the strains from adult social care - which is 80 percent being paid by our local authority. It’s really tough for them to try to balance their budgets.
The face of the high street is changing and that’s not going to change any time soon. Decisions need to be taken at the level of local government in terms of creating a level playing field. It’s fair to say that while the highstreet is paying the rates they are, they find it challenging to compete with the likes of the Amazons and such.
We don’t set business rates - rates are set by central government, the rates across the borough were reviewed in 2017 and they won’t be reviewed again for another couple of years unless the government decides that we do need this level playing field with the online stores.
Making use of empty units is just one of the examples of how inSwindon BID is reaching for creative and innovative solutions that see the small team punching above their weight.
“We care passionately about the town centre. it’s the hub of the community isn’t it? We are constantly hearing about the highstreet closures but let's think about the positives.
“We were at risk last year of potentially losing the House of Fraser and Debenhams but we have retained them in Swindon so there must be a reason for that.
“They have lost them in neighbouring towns and cities - Cirencester has lost their House of Fraser. You have to consider that we have got a decent footfall in the town - we still have a very strong offer. We still have a majority of the key attractors when people talk about the shops they like to visit regularly. We have the Debenhams, the House of Fraser, WH Smith, Marks and Spencer.”
The landlords control their individual property but it’s our job to try and create that perception of Swindon to try and make businesses to want to come into the town centre. So as much as we may be losing one or two retailers one week there’s actually three or four coming into the town centre the following week so it’s raising the perception. It’s not just about the shoppers coming into the town it’s the businesses coming in as well.
The team at InSwindon BID work hard to support their members, organising a variety of events to draw shoppers into the heart of Swindon and create a vibrant atmosphere.
“A key word in the business plan is ‘additionality’ so for example the Christmas lights every year are paid for by the BID. We also do the fireworks. Where else can between 10,000 and 12,000 people go completely free of charge to see a well-known celebrity?
“We have bought in Tinchy Stryder and Sarah Aalto to name just a couple, a terrific fireworks display over the town centre, all for free. Loads of activities going on through the day to create the ambiance in the town centre to entertain the shoppers and their families. It’s a real family affair. But without a BID that can’t happen.”
One of the common issues that we hear about is the cost of parking - this is set by the council but we do have some input. We have worked very hard on parking - let’s put things into perspective.
About 11 years ago the BID were responsible for working with the borough to bring in the £2 for four hours and that remained up until last April, so as much as people want to knock the council, they held those rates. They have had to look realistically at what they can afford, so they did put it up slightly.
We put a whole raft of suggestions forward which included having some concessions after 3pm, we pushed for free Sunday parking because we knew that people do go shopping now more on a Sunday. And when we do events inevitably it’s at the weekend.
We are a tiny team and I think that’s something that we need to stress. There are four on the street team but we cover a 12 hour day, seven days a week. We don’t have all working every day - most of the time it’s two people working.
We put on events, we engage with those members. At the moment we are working on our summer festival in August. We brought in an urban beach for the town centre last year - it proved such a hit we are bringing that back in. What we like to do is to position all the activity in the town centre. We say these are all the reasons to come to town.
Connectivity is really important.
We are always looking with stakeholders at how to improve the transport links with the town centre - we did have a shuttle bus a few years ago. There’s an audience that comes to Swindon from out of town and we are having ongoing conversations with the Borough Council, Network Rail, the Outlet Village and with Seven Capital, the firm behind the Snowasis development.
We’ve all got a vested interest in our town - we live here, we work here, why are we not doing our best always to look at the good in the town?
We all play a part, we are all using the town for one thing or another, let’s be proud of what we have."