As in many areas of the country, in summer 2020 East Suffolk Council faced the challenge of helping its town centres trade successfully and safely. This case study summarises the approach adopted through a combination of delivering targeted, practical improvements and continuing to boost the capacity of local town partnerships to deliver long-term town centre revitalisation.
The challenge facing East Suffolk Council in early summer 2020, was to quickly develop a COVID-19 recovery plan that matched the distinctive needs and capacity of its dispersed communities. East Suffolk is a ‘super district’ with a population of around a quarter of a million residents centred on 11 towns spread over approximately 50 miles north to south. These towns are Aldeburgh, Beccles, Bungay, Felixstowe, Framlingham, Halesworth, Leiston, Lowestoft, Saxmundham, Southwold and Woodbridge, plus the Wickham Market village.
Research that the People & Places Partnership undertook across East Suffolk’s town centres in 2019, showed that 75 per cent of businesses are independently-owned; 21 per cent already forecasted decreasing turnover; and 78 per cent valued the potential of the visitor economy. Around half of the district’s businesses were already alert to the importance of collaborative working to help boost town centre economies through events/activities (46 per cent), marketing/promotions (51 per cent) and local partnerships (47 per cent).
Data from early summer indicated the vulnerability of East Suffolk businesses post-lockdown. Responses from a July survey of East Suffolk small business including the retail, hospitality & leisure sectors, indicated 53 per cent were not trading and 20 per cent were unlikely to survive less than six months under current conditions (a further 57 per cent said it was impossible to predict).
A COVID-19 tourism economic impact assessment prepared for East Suffolk Council in June 2020, indicated the importance of a buoyant tourism season. The findings suggested that the local visitor economy was set to lose £251 million in 2020 (37 per cent of annual total) based on the then projected scenario.
At the same time, tracking national trends has revealed customer reluctance to return to town centres over the summer. Data such as that provided by the Imperial College London and YouGov COVID-19 behaviour tracker data hub, for example, showed that in June over half of the population (53 per cent), were avoiding going in to shops always or frequently. Similarly, data for late May, demonstrated that 72 per cent of people were changing their behaviour to avoid crowded public spaces.
The East Suffolk COVID-19 recovery plan articulates how East Suffolk Council has worked with the county council, towns councils and business associations across the 12 towns to respond to the pandemic. It has done this through a combination of delivering locally-targeted practical improvements, supporting businesses and continuing to facilitate the evolution of town centre partnerships. The work builds on the approach taken in the ongoing East Suffolk Town Initiative that focuses on building local capacity to develop evidence-based solutions for boosting town centres.
Advice was provided to all East Suffolk towns on the application of government guidance on Coronavirus and safer public places using People & Places’ guide to managing town centre streets & public spaces in 2020. Locally-based practical responses have included:
- In Halesworth and Felixstowe, the town councils and business groups worked with the County Council, to restrict traffic at busy times in central thoroughfares. This was undertaken in close consultation with business owners and the wider community.
- Framlingham and Beccles markets were helped to continue trading safely thanks to funding provided through East Suffolk Council covering signage, hand sanitisers, extra bollards and temporary barriers to allow safe, social distancing between stalls.
- Woodbridge Town Council has permitted the use of the town’s market place for outdoor tables and seating for adjacent cafes and a pub. This has helped create a new destination within the town that provides a safe and welcoming experience for customers and encourages greater foot-flow across the centre.
Such town-specific activity has been supplemented by the district-wide provision of social distancing posters; pavement signs; barriers to control pedestrian queues and hand sanitiser stations.
The East Suffolk recovery plan also demonstrated the importance of advancing support for town centre partnership development to enable the necessary communications, coordination and capacity building between business and community groups. Such forging of new town partnerships during the pandemic has included:
- The Lowestoft Recovery & Revitalisation Checklist has been prepared by key partners as a self-assessment of progress made in turning-around Lowestoft town centre and the adjoining areas of the Old High Street and Kirkley. It uses the checklist template provided in the Local Government Association’s revised revitalising town centres toolkit.
- East Suffolk Council is financially supporting the local business group in Woodbridge, to promote the ‘Stay Local, Choose Woodbridge’ campaign. The group promote community and traders’ activity involved in reopening the town centre safely as well as the town’s many attractions and array of independent businesses.
- The creation of a business plan and bringing forward of a ballot to create a new Felixstowe Business Improvement District that will potentially boost business support, marketing and access to the town centre and seafront.
- Initial guidance and the offer of financial support to create new groups representing business interests as part of wider town partnerships in Saxmundham and Leiston.
To reinforce local messages about the safe and warm welcome to town centres, East Suffolk Council has launched a district-wide PR and marketing campaign around the themes of ‘shop local’ and ‘stay safe’.
The impact (including cost savings/income generated if applicable):
The potential impact of recovery planning as part of long-term town centre revitalisation in East Suffolk, is demonstrated by progress in Southwold which was an early pilot of the district-wide towns initiative.
Earlier studies had provided an evidence-base of long-term issues undermining future business confidence in Southwold and a Forward Framework for town centre revitalisation pointed to solutions including “taking a united and proactive approach to galvanising the local business community”.
Against the background of an evidence-based understanding of high street issues, Southwold Town Council appointed a new Town Development Manager in April 2020. This decisiveness by the town council has enabled a coordinated response in reopening Southwold town centre in a way that underpins long-term revitalisation. Activities undertaken in the first six months of the pandemic have included:
Stakeholder engagement & strategy: One of the first tasks of the Town Development Manager was to engage closely with businesses to prepare for the safe and welcoming reopening of the town centre for visitors and local residents.
Managing streetscape & public realm: A one-way pedestrian system along the town’s High Street from late May. In response to a follow-up survey, 75 per cent of the towns businesses responded that the one-way system was working well.
Accessing businesses: Having created a solution for safely guiding potential customers through the town centre, work was undertaken with individual businesses to accommodate queuing for shop entrances at a safe distance on narrow pavements.
Recruiting town ambassadors: The town council also recruited five new Southwold Town Ambassadors to present Southwold as a ‘COVID friendly’ destination over the summer while promoting local businesses and offering a mobile visitor information point.
Developing the ‘My Southwold’ brand: The Town Development Manager is working to develop Southwold’s online presence and including developing the ‘My Southwold’ brand and associated mobile phone app. Southwold will also work with East Suffolk Council as part of the ‘Smarts Town’ project that offers support for developing digital infrastructure and skills.
Creating unique and sustainable events: The Town Development Manager worked with local businesses and community groups to run a summer open air cinema festival as a pilot for a proposed programme that can be financially sustainable in the long-term.
Pursuing future projects & priorities: Town development ambitions for Southwold being pursued with businesses and other key stakeholders extend beyond the summer reopening and potentially include Christmas festivities, a kite festival and town trail to boost the year-round visitor economy.
Forming a business association: On the back of the summer successes, Southwold’s businesses have been surveyed about their support for the formation of a new business association. Over 80 per cent of respondents said they would join a new Southwold Business Association.
How is the new approach being sustained?
This East Suffolk recovery plan sits within the wider context of ongoing support for town centre revitalisation through the ongoing districtwide towns initiative being delivered in association with the People & Places Partnership. The ongoing Towns Initiative is underpinned by detailed research identifying strategic priorities and initiatives for each town that informs future partnership work between East Suffolk Council and local stakeholders.
The East Suffolk Towns Initiative and the recovery plan both follow the methodology and checklist presented in the LGA’s updated revitalising town centres toolkit. This provides a checklist for ensuring that the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of town centre revitalisation are addressed to sustain long-term activity.
The benefits achieved in Southwold from the appointment of a dedicated Town Development Manager have highlighted the advantages of a locally-dedicated resource as a focus for the coordination of activities and communication to stakeholders and the wider community. This has been showcased through a webinar with other East Suffolk towns and they are considering the value of adopting such an approach.
Meanwhile, the East Suffolk Smart Towns project is seeking to build on increased customer and business demand for digital development to support town centre economies during the pandemic. It offers free WiFi for visitors in the main shopping areas of each town, as well as providing footfall tracking technology to help town councils and business groups understand how and when residents and visitors use these areas.
Joanne Chapman, Economic Development Officer or Marie Webster, Economic Development Manager, East Suffolk Council.
Links to relevant documents
- Up-to-date information on the East Suffolk Safer High Streets COVID-19 Recovery Plan
- The East Suffolk Towns Initiative and recovery plan both follow the methodology and checklist presented in the LGA’s updated revitalising town centres toolkit. This includes the tracking of national trends related to COVID-19 and beyond provide by the People & Places Partnership.