Council leader Barrie Grunewald’s column:
A lot’s been said and written about the town centre over the last few months. And like many readers I’m dismayed each time I hear about one of our stores closing its doors for the last time.
But as I’m sure most people realise, this isn’t a situation that’s unique to St Helens. Go to any town or city centre anywhere in the country and you’ll see empty shops.
For a long time now, we’ve been doing all we can to support our town centre retailers. Our parking charges have always been among the lowest in the North West – and after 3pm it’s free.
We’ve also staged dozens of events, especially at weekends, which have pulled tens of thousands of people into the town centre over the last couple of years. The reasoning is simple – the more people we have in the town centre, the more money gets spent in shops.
When I became Leader of the Council last year I promised we’d do all we could to support the town centre. That commitment has not changed one iota. And last week, after our annual council meeting, I pledged to take that commitment even further. We’ve now created a new town centre commission, headed by former town centre manager Ged Gibbons, to restore the area as the vibrant, commercial heartbeat of the borough. The new commission will be backed by a £1m improvement fund to make things happen.
The council will produce a new strategy to secure a viable long-term future for the town centre and we’ll be working closely with property owners to find people to fill our vacant premises.
As a matter of urgency I’ve also accelerated plans to provide free parking for all on a Saturday to boost the number of weekend visitors.
However, we all need to recognise that there are no easy answers. If there were, other people would already have found them.
It’s no coincidence that the growth in online shopping has been mirrored by a steady decline in the number of high street stores run by major retailers. So whatever we do, we have to accept that we can’t turn the clock back.
Town centres are changing – and the secret will be finding the best way of keeping the town centre as vibrant, attractive and commercially successful as possible in the internet age.
It gave me great pleasure to be present last week at the presentation of the borough’s first Honorary Alderman award – to one of our longest serving former councillors.
Leon McGuire, now 83, represented the Earlestown ward and retired in 2012. He’d been a councillor for 25 years and received the accolade for his eminent service to the council.
It was a thoroughly well deserved honour for a man who has always worked hard to represent vulnerable people. He is a man of great dignity and compassion and I congratulate him wholeheartedly.