CHANGING shopping habits have been eroding trade on our high streets for years.
And with what could be the deepest recession since the 1930s, times look particularly bleak for the traditional shopping centre.
While online shopping, out-of-town retail centres and the economic downturn have hurt trade in cities, the impact has been severe in smaller retail centres like Huddersfield.
The once thriving Pack Horse Centre and Queensgate Market are peppered with empty pitches. Meanwhile the major chain stores on New Street have been replaced by vacant units and bargain basement stores.
And few people – even those in power – know what to do.
All this week in the Examiner’s Town Centre in Crisis series, DAVE HIMELFIELD asks Huddersfield’s best business minds how we can bring our town centre back from the brink.
l If you want to join the debate email your thoughts to email@example.com or phone the newsdesk on 01484 437774.
OUR town centre needs to revive its past to build itself a future, says one of Huddersfield’s greatest entrepreneurs.
Ajaz Ahmed, whose former company Freeserve was once worth £9bn, believes the town needs to revitalise its historic areas and re-establish a community feel to its town centre.
The internet pioneer thinks landlords and Kirklees Council should cut their rents and rates to encourage new business to set up in town.
He said: “Landlords need to be more negotiable and Kirklees needs to be more flexible with business rates and encourage smaller businesses to open in the town centre.
“It’s better to have lower returns than empty shops and pound shops.
“There needs to be an incentive so entrepreneurs think it’s worth taking a chance.”
Mr Ahmed, who still lives in Birkby, says the town centre needs to capitalise on its historic assets.
He said: “I look at Huddersfield with pride.
“There are great buildings and architecture. We’re doing a lot better than Bradford, Halifax and Wakefield.
“The railway station is beautiful and very busy with hundreds of trains going to Leeds and Manchester each day. That tells you something.”
He adds: “Let’s go back to the old days and how it felt to be a community.
“If we can get smaller traders in, Huddersfield has the potential to be a beautiful town.”
But Mr Ajaz, who is about to open a chain of high street solicitor ‘shops’, thinks Huddersfield has been blown off course by its visions of emulating larger cities.
Mr Ahmed said: “Big upmarket brand stores are never going to open in Huddersfield.
“For example in Manchester there’s a Hollister, a Burberry, an Apple and a Hilfiger store.
“There are plenty of people in Huddersfield who want to shop at those stores but it’s 35 minutes to Manchester or Leeds on the train. In the future it’ll take 15 minutes.
“I don’t think Huddersfield will ever attract those type of stores because there’s not enough footfall.”
And while Ajaz thinks Tesco should be allowed to go ahead with their plan for a store off Southgate, he also believes out-of-town developments need to be kept in check.
He says: “There should be no more out-of-town centres. Tesco should be allowed to go ahead because it’s not a new store – it’s a replacement store – but the size should be limited.
“Asda wants to build a new store and I don’t think Huddersfield can cope with that.”
THE CLOSURE of town centre offices has hurt high street trade, a business expert has said.
But in a radical move, marketing expert David Harvey believes other shops could be saved if organisations such as Kirklees Council and the local health trusts moved closer to the town centre.
Mr Harvey, a marketing lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, believes the relocation of office space to out-of-town developments has reduced lunchtime footfall for town centre shops.
But the relocation of a major employer to the town centre would give surrounding businesses a boost.
Kirklees Council moved out of the towering Oldgate House in Oldgate, leaving that empty, and has also moved out of other civic buildings.
To spark a debate on the future for the town centre, he had several ideas:
l Encourage office use in town centre
l Make the ring road pedestrian friendly
l Introduce free parking or shop concessions for drivers
l Make more use of the free bus service
l Promote a town centre cinema or comedy venue
Mr Harvey said: “In recent years, many organisations, notably Kirklees Council, has vacated office space in the town centre.
“This is presumably to save costs, but if these offices remain empty, then this reduces footfall and lunchtime spending in the town centre.
“Perhaps the council could take a lead and reverse this trend by bringing more of its workforce back into the town centre.
“Huddersfield Royal Infirmary is also looking very dated these days.
“Its eventual replacement could be sited much closer to the town centre and therefore be more accessible from all parts of Huddersfield.
“The many staff and visitors to a central hospital or large medical centre would increase footfall to the town centre.”
Mr Harvey believes the town centre also needs to be more accessible to cars, cycles and pedestrians.
He said: “Free parking days, with spaces paid for through commercial sponsorship, could be combined with entertainment and retail events to get car-using shoppers into the town.
“The existing free bus service could be expanded to serve more of the town centre, such as New Street.
“The ring-road and main approaches to the town centre are not pedestrian or cyclist-friendly and are unattractive barriers to the town.
“For example, it is good to see the installation of a pedestrian crossing at Shorehead roundabout, but this should have been done years ago. We need more improvements like this.”
Mr Harvey believes Huddersfield town centre also needs more entertainment and amenities to bring people into the town centre.
He said: “An accessible town centre cinema would be popular with students, teenagers and anyone without a car.
“Film-going has enjoyed a revival in recent years, so a town centre site could be commercially viable.
“Venues for live music and comedy should also be encouraged.”
Mr Harvey also thinks shoppers should be rewarded using new technology to encourage them to return to the town centre.
He said: “The quality of customer service in town centre shops, restaurants and pubs varies greatly.
“We should publicise and reward the best examples and encourage staff training and support for those establishments which need to catch up.
“Similarly, regular customers could be rewarded with a town centre loyalty scheme. This could be based on new technology such as smart phone apps and social media to publicise events and offers.”