The local Liberal Democrat councillor for North Gillingham took time during his lunch hour to talk about the critical condition of the local high street as the recession’s consequences take hold.
Andy Stamp, also a candidate in the general election for the Gillingham and Rainham area, didn’t hold back as he answered questions regarding the apparent critical condition of the small high street. Along with Dan McDonald, the Campaign Manager, he talked about the many factors that have led to Gillingham high street becoming an unpopular place to visit with many of these factors a result of the recession.
Twenty-five years ago the area was a different place. Many more chain stores, such as Debenhams, were found among the smaller individual businesses and a more pleasant atmosphere was experienced. The loss of these brand shops has led to a common reason not to go into Gillingham to shop: there just isn’t the choice that was once available. Andy explains, “The Shoe Shop, which was a failing shoe brand, was replaced by the 97p store. If it was a thriving high street it may have been replaced by the likes of Next or Burtons or Dorothy Perkins.” Pair this with the newly built Bluewater Shopping Centre and Hempstead Valley, and the outcome is that more people are being drawn away from Gillingham instead of being drawn to the area.
The vast majority of shops in Gillingham are either charity shops or cheap goods stores. Such examples are Oxfam, The 99p Store, and Pricebusters. The local market on Mondays and Saturdays is also a haven for low-priced items. Ten per cent of shops are completely empty. This image of a place where you can only buy cheap and cheerful products was not always present. Mr. Stamp explains that since the recession hit, these types of shops have cropped up more and more frequently on the high street. “Discount stores have definitely popped up in the last 5 years and Woolworths has been replaced by The 99p shop.” However, the change in the face of Gillingham high street is also due to the change in income, especially over the last two to three years. Gillingham high street “reflects the poor population” of the area, catering to young mums and low-income receivers.
The argument is that if discount stores are all that people can afford and that’s what they want, then why should that be changed? Dan McDonald is a believer of this principle. He explains, “ It’s about market isn’t it, if people want the 97p shops, if people want that sort of shop, if them shops are providing the right goods for people, then the other argument is why should them shops shut.” Magali Landmann the manager at Oxfam, also supports this claim, suggesting the clientele she receives has recently changed. She says, “We have a different kind of customer. We have younger customers, a bit more students.” It seems that no one can escape the necessity to search out cheaper products.
The solution to the problems that the recession has caused appears nonexistent, but Andy Stamp is adamant that Gillingham needs to be rebranded, creating a more welcoming atmosphere, better environment, and in turn attracting more customers to the high street. He claims the council at the moment isn’t much help as no efforts have been made to change the high street’s face. With the council claiming not to have the funds readily available to make a significant transformation, no plans have been produced pinpointing the areas that need change.
However, for the present, with the nearby Tesco expanding, £300,000 has been given to the council to help with the impact of the new megastore. The council has decided to spend it on the far side of the high street, where the Black Lion leisure centre is located. But this will provide no assistance to the small businesses that need help from the council to survive.
Andy Stamp believes the solution is to start small. He wants to see more decent restaurants and coffee shops made available. He also wants to see independent businesses receiving grants from the council to maintain their shop fronts and make their stores more attractive to customers. He suggests, “The council could and should provide grants to small businesses to invest in their shop fronts to make it a better atmosphere. It’s about creating a better environment.” By doing this, he believes the high street will begin to thrive once again.
This change will help with the vital part of the plan to revitalise Gillingham that lies with the many University and College students that are now in the area due to the University of Kent, University of Greenwich, Canterbury Christ Church, and Mid Kent College. With so many students on the doorstep Stamp argues, “the high street should be doing better.” The key is to engage students with the local high street and entice them into spending more time in the area, resulting in a positive atmospheric change. “I think with the universities and college it would be a really good idea to have a few more coffee shops and restaurants to begin with, so people can stay if they wanted to into the evening,” Stamp explains.
A positive attitude goes a long way and Andy Stamp remains determined that Gillingham can be changed and re-established as an enjoyable place to go shopping for a day and an evening meal. However, for the time being, Gillingham remains a place the recession has hit hard, with more and more shops closing.
The Works, a stationary shop along the high street, knows firsthand how hard it is to retain customers during the recession. Stacey Chambers, the Branch Manager, explains that although this branch remains stable, it is still hard to survive. She explains, “This high street especially, because there are so many shops that have closed down, it has obviously affected sales because customers don’t want to go to a high street that hasn’t got everything they need, they’d rather go somewhere else.” It is clear that even the bigger brands are feeling the strain of such an uncertain time.
The overall feeling Andy Stamp portrayed was that the difficulties the recession has caused, especially to the high street, could be overcome with some careful planning and a lot of determination. He argues, “It’s all about people’s attitudes and if you approach a problem negatively then there’s not much hope.”
However, when talking to the Gillingham population, the feeling was very different. Kelvin Walker, Assistant Store Manager at The Works, sums up the feelings of Gillingham High Street shoppers. “When The 97p store goes horribly wrong because of the recession, when a shop like that, as cheap as that, is going under because they can’t afford to stay, what chance has everyone else got?”
It seems the future for Gillingham high street is uncertain with no help being made available to assist the surviving businesses. While this kind of nonchalant attitude may be acceptable at present, five years down the line, the council may be wishing they had made more of an effort to rescue the local high street.
The Gillingham population talk about what they want to see in their local High Street: