Market towns must 'get back to basics'

MARKET towns face an uncertain future because of a shift in modern lifestyles, new research has claimed.The study, carried out by Newcastle University, found more people were prepared to use out-of-town shops or the internet, leaving local shops out of pocket.

MARKET towns face an uncertain future because of a shift in modern lifestyles, new research has claimed.

The study, carried out by Newcastle University, found more people were prepared to use out-of-town shops or the internet, leaving local shops out of pocket.

The research also warned that businesses should not take the loyalty of local customers for granted and concluded that small towns needed to focus on providing good food to ensure their survival.

It centred on the small Northumberland town of Alnwick, which was named Britain's best place to live in 2002 by Country Life magazine.

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But the university study, which was published in The Journal of Rural Studies, found that modern trends were leaving Alnwick and similar towns facing a major threat to their economic future.

Business is down as rural people turn increasingly to online shopping or out-of-town centres.

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And the study found that was compounded by a growing commuter workforce who were more prepared to leave the area for shopping and entertainment.

The researchers said market towns had to "get back to basics" to fight the shift in lifestyles.

If there were good food shops available, more people would come into the towns and other businesses would benefit, while having a cinema or theatre in the town was also important, it claimed.

Dr Neil Powe, the lead researcher, said: "The results of the survey suggest that providing improved food shopping services will encourage more people to use Alnwick and that may increase the patronage of other services.

"The town needs to try harder to encourage a feeling of loyalty and belonging, particularly among commuters, and introducing something like a loyalty card for shoppers may be one solution."

Lady Caroline Cranbrook, president of the Suffolk Country Land and Business Association, has carried out her own nationally-recognised research into shopping trends - which tallied with the Newcastle University study.

In 1997, Lady Cranbrook surveyed 81 shops in the Suffolk Coastal area and her research, which established the importance of good local shops, was taken up nationally by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).

Now, seven years later, she has revisited her research - and found that local shops – especially those selling local produce – are, more than ever, the lifeblood of thriving towns.

Speaking to the EADT yesterday, she said the local food scene was "very buoyant" as more and more people are interested in buying food that is produced locally.

"I couldn't agree more with the Newcastle study's findings," she added. "It's food that brings people in.

"There's this tremendous feeling that people want to find local food. They feel they know where it has come from and have no worries about what's gone into it.

"Local shops also fulfill a great social need as well - people enjoy going to them and chatting, which they can't really do in supermarkets.

"It's of enormous economical benefit to have vibrant local towns with local shops because they are an anchor.

"They will be using local banks, local accountants and local solicitors, where as supermarkets will just use national facilities.

"The message to the Government is that we must maintain a rigorous control over supermarkets. We cannot support very large supermarkets in small rural areas."

Of the survey's other findings - that cinemas and theatres are also vital to the survival of market towns - Lady Cranbrook added: "The more you have going on in a town the more it binds people together.

"All these things where people can meet and talk are essential."

She continued: "When a big supermarket comes in, shops go. Talking to people, they say that their takings halve overnight, yet this is what people come to see.

"Tourists don't want to see identi-kit shops like Gap or Topshop and food is totally unique to the area – it's very important."

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural charity Suffolk ACRE, backed the survey's findings and Lady Cranbrook's comments – but said there was more to a thriving town than just shops.

He added: "One of the first things about trying to keep the viability of towns is to make sure there's enough people living in the town centre above shops and things like that – it keeps it vibrant.

"We also need to ensure that we have a good quality broad range of shops.

"When you have a supermarket that can offer you everything from clothing to food and you go into a town and they don't have that range then there is a temptation to go elsewhere.

"So we need to have a good mix of shops – but it's much more than that. We need to create an environment where people feel comfortable to spend time there.

"We need to be designing communal space with people at the heart of it and we need to be creating places that people want to go.

"I don't think we do enough to engage communities in actually understanding what their needs and concerns are and then designing space in which people are happy to live, work and take their leisure."

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