Tamworth typifies UK’s high street woes

Tamworth typifies UK's high street woes

© Press Association
Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

It was once the heart of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that ruled large swathes of the Midlands, growing over the centuries into a bustling market town.

Until 2001, it was home to Reliant Motors – the company behind the much-loved three-wheeler Reliant Robin car – while its credentials as a place to visit were boosted in 1994 by the opening of the Snowdome, the UK’s first indoor real snow ski slope.

But in recent times Tamworth, like so many towns, has suffered a flurry of high-street shop closures as traditional retailers succumb to the rise of multi-billion pound internet giants.

More than 4,400 stores, restaurants and pubs disappeared across the UK in the first half of this year, according to analysis of 3,000 towns and cities by the Local Data Company, the worst result since it began compiling the data in 2014.

Along the high street in Tamworth, Staffordshire, a dozen shops pulled down their shutters for good, while just three opened. On Thursday, locals in the quiet town centre spoke of how scores of high-street stalwarts have deserted the place over the years.

A Remembrance Day poppy seller, Belle Jenkinson, has witnessed the decline first hand since she moved to the town 17 years ago.

Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

© Press Association
Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

Perched on a chair in front of a derelict shopfront in Ankerside Shopping Centre, the 76-year-old widow said: “It’s changed drastically since we’ve been here, shops closing. At the moment there’s more phone shops and charity shops than anything.”

The pensioner, a driver in the Women’s Royal Army Corps in Northern Ireland in the 1960s before the Troubles started, has been selling poppies in the shopping centre for the last eight years and has watched more and more shops shut.

“They keep closing. These clothes shops come for Christmas then come January they will probably disappear. They open up just for a short time and they disappear again,” she explained, pointing out another nearby vacant premises.

Clive Summers, a metalwork furnaceman who served 15 years in the army, has lived in Tamworth most of his life and watched it change beyond all recognition. The 56-year-old said: “It was a beautiful place to come. You could come down here and do your weekly shop, now you’ve got to go to different places, which is sad. You see this going on all over the country.”

Download the all-new Microsoft News app to receive up-to-the minute news from the world’s best sources – available now on iOS and Android

Summers said Tamworth Castle, a popular local tourist attraction, brings visitors but he believed more would come if there were not so many shops closing.

His wife Julia, a care worker, added: “They all go out of Tamworth to go to the big shops in Birmingham. You can’t get what you want here.”

John Prince, 47, who has managed Peter Coates butchers in Tamworth for the past five years, says three competitors have closed down during that time, as dwindling town centre custom meant only the best quality produce would still sell.

Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

© Press Association
Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

Other locals are more upbeat, but accept that Tamworth, population 77,000, faces challenges familiar to many British towns.

John Westwood, 74, ran a delicatessen for 30 years before retiring nine years ago and selling it. But earlier this year he decided to buy it back again to revive its ailing fortunes.

Five weeks into the new venture, he said: “Because I’m very well known to the clientele, I’ve managed to pick trade up a little bit, but it’s not what it was nine years ago.”

He put the change down to factors such as parking charges and punishing business rates. “There’s nothing to encourage [people to come here]. We’re just a town now of banks, building societies and charity shops.”

Asked about the economic difficulties affecting his constituents, the Tory MP for Tamworth, Christopher Pincher, declined to comment.

Cllr Steve Claymore, the cabinet member for heritage and growth on the Conservative-run local council, pointed out that Tamworth was voted one of the country’s three best town centres as part of the Great British High Street awards in 2015, adding that regeneration was a “main priority”.

“In recent years we have seen the closure of some major retail chains nationally and this is affecting all high streets as shopping habits change,” he said.

“The decline also appears more significant because Tamworth did not suffer as much as other areas in previous years. However, Tamworth has some fantastic award-winning businesses, and as a council we work hard to support them where possible.”

But Cllr Simon Peaple, leader of the Labour opposition, said town planning had failed to keep up with the realities of a rapidly changing world. “We had a lovely cheese shop and 25 years ago, Margaret’s cheese shop was quite the thing,” said Peaple.

Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

© Press Association
Pedestrians walk past the BHS store in Wood Green, London

“People would buy brie and camembert on a Saturday morning, but then Sainsbury’s comes and Asda comes and all those places offer a range of cheeses.”

“We had a specialist craft shop and then Hobbycraft opened in [the retail park] Ventura Park and then they went too.”

The developer Henry Boot bought the town centre shopping precinct Gungate just before the financial crash, but struggled to attract big name retailers to help revive it.

“They misjudged it and sat on it empty. Anybody coming from a major firm takes one look at it and thinks, nobody’s investing here, why would we?”

“The reality is that 30% of shopping is done online. Those trends are bigger than any one council can deal with.”

The council recently bought Gungate back, but Peaple has been frustrated by “dithering” about what to do with it, amid disagreement about whether to aim for residential development rather than fight a losing battle to revive the retail sector.

He also fears for the future employment prospects of the shoppers needed to keep Tamworth’s tills ringing.

One of the biggest local industries is logistics, employing hundreds of people at the local Birch Coppice distribution centre, a cluster of warehouses off the M42.

“That’s provided a lot of jobs, but if they have driverless lorries and workerless warehouses soon, then God help us,” Peaple said.

Leave a Comment