Towns Conference abuzz with energy and ideas
"One of the most relevant and interesting events I have attended for a long time"
‘The Future High Street’ was the theme of a very successful 2019 Warwickshire Towns Conference, attended by businesses and place practitioners throughout the county.
Delegates gathered at Warwick Racecourse to discuss how Warwickshire's towns can be proactive in adapting to the changing outlook for retail and the high streets.
There is no hiding from the challenges faced by high streets but those challenges can be met - and the positive, can-do approach shown by delegates was reflected by post-conference feedback which included "one of the most relevant and interesting events I have attended for a long time" and "one of the best conferences I’ve attended in recent years.”
Chaired by Ojay MacDonald, Chief Executive of the Association of Town and City Management, the conference highlighted what can be done to help high streets to continue to thrive. Ideas discussed are now being put into practice, as they were following the previous two Towns Conferences in 2017 and 2018.
At those, a number of initiatives and themes were introduced, including the digital high street, place-making and civic crowdfunding, as well as town centre partnerships and the enabling of greater collaboration between town centre businesses to create stronger networks.
The 2019 Conference was split into four Key Strands.
First was ‘Accessibility’ and how our high streets need to recognise the business benefits of ensuring places are open to all. Mike Adams OBE from ‘We Are Purple’ revealed that The Purple Pound is worth £249 billion/year and growing by 14% per annum, yet 75% of disabled people have left a store, building or website due to poor access and/or customer service. Half the UK population has a connection to a person with accessibility needs so by neglecting this area means missing out on an economic opportunity.
The second topic discussed was Culture, on which delegates heard from Martin Sutherland, Chief Executive of Coventry City of Culture 2021 Trust, and Lewis Smith, Chair of Kenilworth Arts Festival. They explained how using culture, festivals and novel business venues can heighten a town's experiential offer.
Jeremy Rucker from City Dressing, sponsor of this year’s conference, provided an interactive presentation on how we should be utilising spaces within our places, including the transient spaces. For example, the clever use of umbrellas in a different environment can add joy to a place.
In session three, Spacehive, the civic crowdfunding platform, gave an update on projects and how the Warwickshire Placemaking Fund has progressed. Some amazing projects have been funded and more are in the pipeline.
Communities can play a big part in shaping the future of our high streets and £152k of local money has been levered from £52k of the placemaking fund. Delegates heard from Sian Smith, who represents the 'Studley on the Map' project. Sian explained the highs and lows of crowdfunding and how it created new community links on which Studley is now capitalising.
Diane Whelre from SpringBoard explained how footfall rates, online sales and conversion rates are all changing on our high streets nationally - but it is far from all doom and gloom.
Tim Lewis rounded the session off with a presentation on Place Branding and broke some of the myths about the subject. Ownership and authenticity, through sharing a place’s values and people’s beliefs, is what really matters and makes up a place’s brand.
The final panel of the day gave the floor to local businesses and place makers, with JoCo Gift Shop owner Jo Williams and Ropewalk Shopping Centre Manager Tony Wilkes, from Nuneaton, sitting on a panel with Sarah Bassett from Alcester Chamber of Trade and Save The High Street. The discussion centred on the importance of the Brand of each place and also of a partnership approach to each. The only way our places can thrive is through close collaboration between public and private sectors.
To find out more about the work of the Warwickshire Towns Network, please visit www.warwickshire.gov.uk/towncentres and on social media with our handle @WarksTN.