Newyddion Cymru Ar-Lein : Wales News Online

Newyddion Lleol a Chenedlaethol Cymru – Local and National News for Wales

THERE has been much gnashing of teeth about the plight of town and city centres of late.

Some sectors and businesses can keep under the radar – not bricks and mortar retail.

Gaps on the high street are inherently visible, but there has always been a certain level of churn among retailers. They come and go.

However, the internet and the Covid pandemic seem to have put rocket boosters behind certain trends, and those gaps on some of our streets have widened.

It feels like there is agreement that city centres have to change, although what that change should be is up for debate.

In this interview, Russell Greenslade, chief executive of business group Swansea BID, outlines his hopes for the city, and whether he agrees with a consultants’ verdict that it needs a stronger sense of pride and a spring clean.

The BID (business improvement district) group was set up 15 years ago and is funded by a levy on hundreds of businesses within the defined district area.

Question: Do you see a new type of retail evolving in Swansea city centre?

Answer: We have seen, in the past few years, Swansea city centre become a honey pot for good quality and interesting food and beverage outlets and we are also seeing our hospitality sector continuing to evolve despite very challenging times.

We are particularly proud of the steady and ambitious investment that our city centre businesses have made in recent years – and throughout very challenging times – to upgrade their businesses and to prepare for the exciting future that Swansea is facing.

As far as retail is concerned, we have always been very well-served in Swansea city centre with vibrant independents. They pulled out all the stops to serve people during the lockdowns and they are continuing to prove their worth.
I think we will continue to see more independents, run by people with a vested interest in Swansea and with local roots, springing up.

I was interested to see how popular RAVS Vintage was during our recent student event, and Flamingo Vintage is a fairly new addition to the city centre, alongside Hobo’s, which has been trading for many years. I think the vintage market will continue to grow as young people drive the environmental debate.

Question: Do you worry that retail will be squeezed more and more by leisure, residential and office schemes?

Answer: Worrying that retail will be squeezed out by leisure, residential and offices is looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope.

City centre retail cannot survive without shoppers, so increasing the number of people who live and work in the city centre is vital – whether these are students living in the new purpose-built accommodation, workers who will be at the new library site and other city centre hubs, or people who move into the new residential sites created by Copr Bay phase one. Retail investors need evidence of steady footfall before they will invest, so this is an important stage in the process of getting important inward investment.

Question: A recent consultants’ report on the re-purposing of the city centre said Swansea still suffered from poor perceptions among first-time visitors, needed a spring clean, and a stronger sense of pride – do you agree?

Answer: Swansea isn’t Bristol, Liverpool or Cardiff. It is a very different kind of city that retains a more quirky, characterful, approachable character. I think many people appreciate this and enjoy the independents and the market, and the proximity to the beach.

We see, every year, how many students come here from elsewhere and stay here because the lifestyle here is unique. However, there is always work to be done, and I certainly feel that the ‘strong sense of pride’ is something we could work on, or at least shout about more. Much is being done to improve infrastructure and to attract visitors and our street cleansing team works hard to respond to issues within the city centre. Let’s all do our bit to make Swansea look its best.

Question: How important is Marks & Spencer now, given the demise of Debenhams and the planned departure of Next?

Answer: It is important to have anchor stores in any city centre and we were pleased to see a new food hall and a big recent investment in the Swansea Marks & Spencer store, as well as new-look lingerie, homeware and childrenswear sections.

Question: Given that most of us buy stuff on the internet, should we grumble when the high street has vacant shops?

Answer: Consumers and the media need to take on board that high streets across the UK have been going through major changes for a number of years in line with the ongoing shifts in the shopping habits, working habits and leisure pursuits of the population.

We are all a part of this trend and while some might be nostalgic for the past, things do change. It would be irresponsible for any of us to stick our head in the sand about this, all stakeholders are well aware of these changes, and BIDs, local authorities and businesses make and enact strategies to meet these changes intelligently.

We are particularly proud of the steady and ambitious investment that our city centre businesses have made in recent years – and throughout very challenging times – to upgrade their businesses and to prepare for the exciting future that Swansea is facing.

Question: How important are the council-led redevelopment schemes, such as the new arena and planned high-tech office space at the former Oceana site on The Kingsway?

Answer: The very impressive ongoing regeneration, that, let’s not forget, has been marching despite one of the hardest economic periods for the economy and the local authority, shows real ambition and a commitment to a modern, growing city.

The sight of cornerstone developments like the arena and the bridge are great morale-boosters and the developments have certainly provided a trigger to our businesses to invest in their own future in Swansea. The fact that Swansea Council has also looked at its own workforce and services and committed to moving some of them into the city centre itself is very important, both symbolically and in reality.

And – I keep banging this drum – investors from outside the area are watching and assessing our city centre to weigh up its attractiveness. The more confident we are the more investment we will see. That is why it is crucial that we drop the negative narrative that has become a bit of a fall-back position in some quarters. It is corrosive.

Question: What has Swansea BID been doing since Covid hit to help businesses?

Answer: We have worked very hard to support its businesses during the pandemic in facilitating financial support, free staff training, promotion, cost reduction schemes and a number of other key initiatives.

BID’s Big Heart of Swansea brand gives businesses across the city centre free promotion via its social media channels, helping them to reach many thousands of consumers. We supported the local authority in securing funding for four Covid rangers to help the existing ranger team during the height of the pandemic.

In the past few days we have launched a new Big Heart of Swansea gift card. The card, which is exclusive to Swansea city centre, is designed to boost local spending and support BID area businesses as the city centre goes through its recovery stage.

Question: Do you think Swansea BID has made a difference, and if so can you give an example?

Answer: We sourced over 5,000 items of PPE from local businesses to keep the spend local. We provided companies with free risk assessments, Covid safe messaging posters, and keep your distance floor signs. Through our relationship with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s, we provided around 1,000 visors to businesses, helping them get back on their feet quickly when reopening.

We also led on the outdoor adaptation grant for the BID area. We worked with eligible businesses to provide over £280,000 in grant funding to transform their outside areas, enabling them to trade through and beyond Covid in line the Government guidelines.

Question: Do you survey BID members, if so what are their priorities?

Answer: Yes. We survey BID area businesses ahead of drawing up our five-year and yearly plans. Their responses feed into our operations. Our plan for the five years ahead includes scaling up our services, investing in data, digital and technology to provide more insight, green infrastructure projects, attracting more visitors and greater collaborative working with the public sector.

Question: Is the environment of a city centre – the landscaping, presence of greenery – important?

Answer: Yes, of course. The more pleasant our city centre looks and feels the more time people will spend here and the more inclined they will be to visit. It is also well-known that a well-kept environment encourages most people to play their own part in caring for that environment.

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