When it comes to inevitable change, society is faced with a stark choice: shape it, or be shaped by it.
That’s the choice we face here in Cheltenham. I am talking in particular about our high street, which faces perhaps its biggest change since Captain Henry Skillicorne first commercialised Cheltenham’s spa waters in the eighteenth century and helped shops spring up across the town centre.
Since then a technological revolution has been tearing through retail. Global trends have led to what has been dubbed a ‘retail apocalypse’ in the US, with thousands of stores facing closure. Things aren’t quite as dramatic in the UK, but even so last year the number of jobs and hours worked in the retail sector dropped at the fast annual rate for more than a decade.
Cheltenham is faring better than most parts of the UK, but the number of vacant shops is still higher than we’re used to.
And the fact is, shifting consumer habits aren’t likely to change anytime soon. So it would be madness to bury our heads in the sand. Cheltenham needs a plan. If there is going to be a reduction in the amount of retail floor space, it should be part of a managed retreat not a disorderly rout.
Thought needs to be given to whether some retail space in town should be redesignated as residential. Can this be the moment when we start to provide meaningful numbers of homes for young people to provide those vital early steps on the housing ladder, and take pressure off some of our green spaces which are being eyed up by developers?
Councils have far more power than they used to. The Government has revised planning policy to give them greater flexibility to provide a more vibrant mix of uses to keep town centres thriving.
There are sensitivities here obviously. But that’s precisely why we need a clear strategy. Unless we want a disorderly outcome imposed on us by market forces, it’s high time our town seized the initiative.