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Monday, 27 February 2012

Managing Rochford's retail offering

It's sadly unrealistic to have expected that Rochford would have escaped the effects of economic stagnation. Like many other shopping centres across the country, the scars of a downturn in retail spending are all too evident.

Walking along many of the empty and boarded up shop fronts of West Street can make you feel wistful of "better times" in years gone by, but some retailers have struggled to earn a living in Rochford for many years.

What's to be done?

Planning permission has recently been granted to convert one of the former shops in West Street back to residential use. Perhaps this is part of an acceptance that there are too many shops for modern day Rochford and the retail space needs to shrink? A smaller and leaner offering, more closely focused around the Square may give shopkeepers a better chance to trade profitably and may in the longer term attract more visitors. How so? Less empty units and a closer match between supply and demand may reduce the risk of every spare unit being replaced by yet another charity shop, and will create a more attractive and diverse shopping and leisure environment. Already we are seeing the growth of the food and dining scene in Rochford. A new Italian restaurant opens at the bottom of West Street shortly and plans appear to be afoot to see the Conservative Club ("The Old Ship") reopen as a restaurant shortly.

I don't want to be too downbeat however. Living in Rochford, you have the luxury of still being able to buy most of what you need, and more, on your doorstep. There is often a queue outside the independent Butchers. There are gift shops, two Bakers, several places to grab a cup of tea and a piece of cake, two supermarkets, Newsagents, Chemist, several Beauticians and Hair Dressers, a dry cleaners, a Jewellers, a shop catering for those keen "divers" out there, and numerous others. (I haven't even mentioned the many pubs - another post) So, if you're reading this and thinking about whether to pay a visit or not, let me reassure you, you will not be disappointed. I just want it to be even better than it already is!

In the meantime, I wonder if some imagination could be used with the empty shops. Could, for example, the Council and the Landlords get together and arrange for some form of local artwork to be displayed. It's a scheme that's working well in many another areas.

When I walk down West Street, I want to marvel at the beautiful, historic architecture, not feel sad about yet another boarded up or grilled window, shielding broken glass.