WMN opinion: If you value market towns you need to use their shops
The conclusion reached in the report – revealingly entitled Too Many Shops – that many of our communities will never again be able to support the number of retailers that they once did will be self-evident to anyone who travels around the Westcountry.
Our shopping habits have changed, irrevocably, from the way they were when many of our market towns grew up in the last century. Out-of-town malls, covered city shopping centres, online purchasing and the growth of the supermarket have made it impossible for some retailers, whether large chain or small independent, to survive.
It makes sense, therefore, to relax the rules governing the change of use of retail premises, where that is appropriate and broadly supported by the communities affected. But while we can all point to towns which are a shadow of their former selves, we can also name others where retailers are thriving. Some might be booming on the back of their location, just that little bit further away from the city. Others are lucky enough to occupy a favoured location, popular with visitors and with a community around them that values its local traders.
But the real key to survival for many towns is having the right mix of shops and, in particular, those unique outlets that become a reason, on their own, for making a visit. The fabulous delicatessen, the bookshop that can always find that special title, the gunshop that looks after the local shooting community, or the clothes shop specially geared up to meet local demands.
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The towns that are surviving the downturn and continuing to offer a service that is a rival to the supermarket, the internet and the shopping mall, all boast these kind of one-off outlets that make the towns in which they are based a pleasure to visit.
They will not survive, however, as mere curiosities – more like museums than thriving retail outlets. They all need customers ready to spend and spend regularly. And that is where customers come in. Use it or lose it is an overworked cliche. It is also true. We may have to lose some shops in our towns to other uses but if we make a concerted effort to support those that are left we have a sporting chance of saving our market towns for many years to come.
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The National Trust is on the look-out for the ten best walks in Britain. We're willing to bet every outdoors loving person in the Westcountry could name at least ten in their very own locality. Across our region, from the South West Coast Path to the moors of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, there are literally hundreds of prize-winning walks that deserve a place in the top ten.
So let's tell the NT about them – and tell us here at the WMN as well. Our region is probably the finest place in Britain to go for a walk. After the summer we've had our tourist industry needs a boost. Walking is the way ahead. Let's celebrate it.