The chronic decline of Britain’s high streets is making the front pages again after the names of the ‘Portas Pilots’ were announced this month.
The profiles that have filled the national press for the 12 towns could be descriptions of most towns in Manchester – high streets that have failed to adapt to profound changes in the way people shop combined with the new realities of reduced consumer spending.
Stockport was the only town from Manchester to be selected for the pilot scheme despite Manchester being one of the worst affected regions in the UK.
Towns like Stockport, Eccles, and Cheetham Hill have vacancy rates at around 30% where the national average is just 14.6%.
The North West recorded the highest increase in unemployment in the UK for the last quarter and the tale being told is that the recession has hit Manchester particularly hard.
But there is one town in Manchester whose high street is filled with boarded up shops that doesn’t quite fit this narrative – the affluent market town of Altrincham.
In 2010 Altrincham hit the headlines when the Local Data Company (LDC) published the results of a nationwide survey to show the town had the highest proportion of shops lying empty in the country.
Altrincham isn’t a town crippled by the recession and is in fact one of the wealthiest areas in the north of England known for its low crime rate and excellent schools.
The latest Office of National Statistics figures show that nearly half of its working population are senior managers or professionals compared to just 25.9% nationally.
Matthew Hopkinson, Director at the LDC, said: “Altrincham may have a lot of affluent people living there but the question is, do they shop there? The figures suggest not.”
Every high street retailer has had to contend with the rise in online shopping but Altrincham is also in the shadow of the Trafford Centre and Manchester city centre.
Mr Hopkinson described the Trafford Centre and Manchester as places that create shopping experiences filled with destination stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel.
He said: “If you could be dropped from a helicopter in Manchester or Altrincham to spend fours hours of your day where would you go?”
Of course you don’t need a helicopter - the Trafford Centre is only 13 minutes drive away and the free parking and cheap supermarket petrol help make up the cost of going.
A breakdown of Altrincham’s retail sector shows that currently 25.7% of units are vacant and only 60% of shops are independents, compared with 66% nationally.
For a historic market town like Altrincham to have so few independents is surprising especially taking into account the 2.4% rise in independents nationally last year.
A new group called Altrincham Forward (AF) comprised of key stakeholders and business leaders has recently been launched to revitalise the town.
Helen France, from AF and the Trafford Council lead for Altrincham, said: “We want to breathe life into the town by creating an offer that is unique to Altrincham. It’s not simply about filling retail space with more shops but having a mix of retail, leisure, and events.”
One of the first tasks of the group was to enlist students from Trafford College to create a YouTube video as part of their ultimately unsuccessful Portas Pilot bid.
Many shop owners were underwhelmed by the Portas Review – an independent review conducting by a celebrity government tzar with a budget of just £1 million (now raised to £1.2 million) to solve fundamental problems.
But the recommendations in the Portas Review are in line with AF’s plans and this Conservative strong-hold isn’t asking for public funds but wants more deregulation to help businesses.
Ms France said: “We’ve gotten some of the most prestigious business leaders in the North West involved with AF because we know the revival will be commercially led.”
Speaking to the residents it is clear that people want the historic market, which was established in 1290, revitalised and restored to its former glories.
A 52-year-old resident shopping on George Street said: “The market is a shadow of it’s former self. I go to Chorlton to do my shopping now. They have the Barbakan, Out of the Blue, and The Unicorn, but there’s nothing like that here.”
Altrincham has nine charity shops and four pound stores, higher than the national average, further evidence that locals don’t shop here but Mr Hopkinson from LDC thinks this is only natural for a town like Altrincham.
He said: “It’s perfect – rich people donate their clothes and feel good about themselves and people from the surrounding areas, like Wythenshawe, buy them at a cut down price.”
Louise Sinclair, 24, who works in Altrincham, said: “It’s like any other high street except the charity shops are gold mines. People here go to fancy do’s and only wear their outfits once. I’ve bought a few designer dresses here for a bargain.”
When asked if the economic climate had changed things her friend said: “Here they’re the kinds of people who become wealthier during recessions.”
One of the problems for Altrincham is that retail space is not concentrated on the high street and the national chains that generate footfall are spread across the town – Superdry and House of Fraser on the high street; Sports Direct and TK Maxx in the retail park; and of course the numerous supermarkets dotted around the town.
One of the few drivers of retail growth in recent is supermarkets and Altrincham has 12 in total and two giant supermarkets on either side of the high street – Sainsbury’s and Tesco Extra.
The convenience and prices make it almost impossible for small independents to compete with supermarkets in certain sectors.
Supermarkets have dominated grocery sales of decades and control 97% of the market and the expansion into non-grocery has seen them become some of the biggest clothing retailers in the country by volume.
If the Tesco Extra and Sainsbury’s in Altrincham have pulled some shoppers away from the high street other businesses have benefited from the footfall they attract.
In September last year Richard McConnell opened a ZipYard franchise, which offers a clothing alteration and repair service, on Lloyd Street, just next to the Sainsbury’s.
He said: “Many of my customers associate a shop in Sainsbury’s with a trip to the ZipYard. A lot of customers drop in an alteration, go do their weekly shop, then pop back an hour later and pick up their clothes.”
How far shoppers venture is unclear but shop owners on George Street are adamant that the supermarkets have taken a significant slice of their business.
If Sainsbury’s extended into alterations and repairs, as many supermarkets have done with dry cleaning services, Mr McConnell thinks it would spell the end for his business.
He said: “You don’t see too many corner shops near a supermarket and if Sainsbury’s went into the world of alterations I don’t think we could stay open so close to
Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King recently said high streets should have fewer shops and that empty units should be converted into housing.
At the same time a recent review by commercial property adviser CBRE showed that supermarkets have submitted planning applications to increase their trading space by 50% - 21.2 million square feet, enough for 1,600 supermarkets, has already been approved.
With this mass expansion of the supermarkets and other projects such as Trinity Leeds (where Primark will open the world’s biggest store) the high street seems to be the only place where retail is shrinking.
This reorganisation of retail space has come about through relaxation of certain planning laws and regulations and changes need to be made at a national level to give high streets a fighting chance.
One area where there’s almost universal agreement is the need to change the way business rates are calculated.
Ms France said it was a key issue and has welcomed talk of reform so that local authorities can keep some of the money they raise instead of having it redistributed.
This income could mean that Trafford Council would not have to charge for some other services, such as car parking, thereby encouraging more people to visit the high street.
Mr McConnell from ZipYard has called for a reduction in the rate and said: “Something has to be done to encourage growth in the economy and sustain existing local business. Any kind of business rate relief would be a welcome incentive for existing and new business.”
There is a realisation in Altrincham that things cannot go back to the way they were and that the high street will play a different role in the future.
Retail will be significantly reduced but that doesn’t mean the empty units can’t be filled – cafes, restaurants, learning centres, pop-ups, and art galleries can fill the space to create a place people want to visit.
A thriving high street is where the character and life of a town can be experienced and multinationals know that people prefer shopping at local stores.
Starbuck’s have teams of people who visit cafes to learn how to recreate the intimacy and personality of a neighbourhood coffee shop.
Businesses like Pizza Express are now opening up in former banks and listed buildings and are able to appropriate the architecture of the high street to create a brand new restaurant that seems steeped in local history.
The interiors of Mulberry and Louis Vuitton look as if they have been designed by gallery curators and even the £10 T-shirts in Topshop’s flagship Oxford Circus store are given the same reverence as the masterpieces in all the art galleries that surround the shop.
Mr Hopkinson from LDC said: “Retail is changing so don’t sit in your shop and think you can continue as before. The high streets that will survive are the ones that best manage this change.”
With the right political will and commitment Altrincham could not only reverse the decline but also show the way forward for other high streets in Manchester.