Retailers call for action to save Epsom's 'dying' town centre
Worried retailers are calling for action now to save Epsom's "dying" town centre.
The exit of another well-known brand, Milletts, from Epsom High Street last week will have reinforced the view shared by many traders that Epsom town centre is a "tale of two halves".
While The Ashley Centre, a shopping mall home to 50 high street and independent retailers with its own car park, attracts significant numbers of shoppers and boosts footfall in the surrounding shops outside the centre, which are all occupied, the rest of the High Street, leading to Upper High Street, has seven vacant stores and seven charity shops.
Retailers point to Boots's relocation to the Ashley centre end and the demise of Woolworths in 2009 as major blows to the quality and variety on offer at this end of the high street.
They also cited the town centre's traffic system and "expensive" and limited parking as reasons why many people are no longer visiting this end of the high street.
Christine Stanley, owner of women's boutique Basler, said: "It's dying. It's a town of two halves.
"The Ashley Centre's the bit that's busy, the bit around TK Maxx is a bit quieter and here it's just dead.
"It's really disappointing that the council's totally neglected this side of the high street".
Residents described the town centre as "drab" and "rundown" in a recent video shot by local market research video company Vox Pops International and sent to Epsom Council.
The council insisted the economic vitality of the town centre is a "priority" and it is developing initiatives to tackle the perceived decline of Epsom's heartland.
A spokesman said: "The high street is not doing as badly as others, but the retail sector is certainly facing unparalleled challenges, which we are aware of, and we are doing all we can."
But there is frustration that the town still does not have a town centre manager - something many neighbouring town centres have had for many years to ensure their high streets are as attractive as possible to traders and customers. In July last year, the council said this would happen by the end of 2012.
But in December, it announced that a business development manager (BDM) will be in place by April, and that their role, working with the recently re-launched Epsom and Ewell Business Partnership, will be to boost business and attract trade across the whole the borough, although with a particular focus on the town centre.
The council is funding the role with £50,000 from the £100,000 high street innovation fund it was awarded last July by the Government, in the wake of Mary Portas' report into Britain's high streets. Another £50,000 in match-funding will be provided by the Ashley Centre.
A council spokesman explained it wanted a BDM who could encourage and support the full spectrum of businesses, not just shops - which is the primary focus of town centre managers.
He said: "The BDM role will facilitate growth in four areas.
"In retail, working to address empty retail units and promoting Epsom market.
"In other business sectors, to address the large amount of empty office space.
"In businesses around the University for the Creative Arts and NESCOT, to look at how we can facilitate the entrepreneurial zeal of the young people associated with the borough's learning establishments.
"And working with local enterprise partnerships and initiatives, to encourage investment and secure funding for infrastructure works."
The remaining £50,000 from the high street innovation fund has been used to establish a civic improvement fund, which the council has match-funded with a further £50,000. A person has just been taken on one day a week to work with landlords to make vacant shops in the borough more attractive to new businesses.
Councillor Neil Dallen, chairman of the council's strategy and resources committee, said: "If council officers feel a shop front needs improvement to boost the feel of the high street, and the shop can match fund the money, the officers will approach the shop or business and make them aware of how they can use the civic improvement fund."
While some councils are looking at shrinking the size of their high streets as shoppers increasingly buy online, there is hope that Epsom's may get a significant boost thanks to plans to develop the Upper High Street, Church Street and Depot Road sites.
This could give shoppers a reason to use both ends of the high street and should significantly boost footfall at the shops between. The council's brief for the site, which included options for a food store, new housing and parking, was drawn up last year and an extended consultation ended in September.
Plans to allow council's to keep 50 per cent of business rates for new businesses, could provide an extra incentive for the council to ensure shops are occupied, though the money this is expected to raise in the current climate is very limited.
There are also encouraging signs that Epsom is doing rather well, despite the recession.
In the first half of 2013 vacancy rates in the town centre were just 8.6 per cent compared to around 15 per cent in town centres nationally.
Figures for the council's car parks, which were free in the run-up to Christmas, showed a 2.5 per cent increase in visits to the town centre last month compared to the previous year.
Despite losing Waterstones last year and HMV the year before, The Ashley Centre has said the number of people visiting it are at an all-time high, with footfall up 14.4 per cent since 2008.
And a report published by company formation specialists Duport this week said there were 149 start-ups in Epsom between July and September last year - the highest figure on record for this quarter, which Duport said is a sign of confidence in Epsom’s prospects.