THE Oxford Dictionary defines the word convenient as ‘fitting in well with a person’s needs, activities, and plans’.

Taking this definition and applying it to the state of our town centres - something doesn’t add up.

Given the fact you’ve purchased something, logic would imply you’ve decided it’s something you need. But for a growing number of purchases, there’s a good chance you bought it online, instead of venturing into town.

Now you’ve got to wait a number of working days to receive your item, or until the next working day if you’ve splashed on the post and packing costs. Your need for the item wasn’t urgent.

But it’s the latter half of the definition that has taken sales away from the town centre, as now factors such as parking costs, traffic, or just leaving the house, don’t fit in with a person’s activities or plans - it has become ‘inconvenient’.

Which leaves us with empty shops - a lot of empty shops - as retailers no longer consider their shops viable to keep open, when the same goods can normally be purchased online.

Somerset County Gazette:

One empty shop as motorists drive into the town

Somerset County Gazette:

One of many empty shops on Taunton's High Street 

In Taunton, the story is no different. More and more shops lay bare and visitors to the town centre are put off.

But what action is being done to ensure life remains in our town centre?

Cllr Mark Edwards, executive councillor for business development for Taunton Deane Borough Council, says the council plays a part in encouraging new trade into the town. But if Taunton isn’t on a retailer’s wishlist, shops can be hard to fill.

He said: “As Taunton Deane Borough does not own much town-centre property, we work with a range of partners to help keep the centre as vibrant as possible.

“We regularly speak to the commercial agents about empty shop units and support them where we can to find tenants.

“Generally, retailers/restaurants and other businesses have target lists of towns where they might want to establish a presence. The agents tap into this when units become vacant by advertising the property.”

Cllr Edwards said the town is a victim of national trends, but has also benefitted from larger businesses taking over empty shopfronts to replace big names.

“In a broad sense it`s a joint effort with retailers and the Chamber of Commerce to encourage new occupiers and support the existing ones where we can,” he said.

“Our vacancy rate remains low compared to national averages but of course we do have some areas that are a little less buoyant, such as East Reach.

“Closures and change have always been a feature of town centres. Many readers will know that a number of centrally-located businesses have swapped places over the last 20-30 years.

“The national picture is also hugely influential - as businesses such as Woolworth have disappeared we now have others such as TK Maxx in their place. The town moves with the trends. This is well illustrated by the growth in the number of restaurants as town centres adapt to offer more in the way of leisure to attract customers and visitors.”

The council, as well as it’s planning department, works with agents and applicants to fill the gaps left behind.

One commercial agent is Greenslade Taylor Hunt (GTH), who believe Taunton is doing well compared to other towns, in ‘challenging’ times for retail.

Duncan Brown, commercial partner with GTH, said: “Although retailing is facing challenging times, Taunton has fared relatively well. There are fewer vacant shops than most comparative towns and when vacant, the majority let within a reasonable time period.

“As we all know, shopping for the consumer is changing and we need to embrace this. It is important to do everything possible to make Taunton a destination to attract visitors and both national and independent retailers.

Somerset County Gazette:

Duncan Brown, commercial partner with GTH

“The new signage and pay-when-you-leave car parks will help, as will every attempt being made to keep parking charges to a minimum, while the town centre needs to be kept clean and tidy.

“Equally, although Small Business Rates Relief has helped those with rateable values less than £15,000, the government must do more to make the rating system fairer to all.”

But how beneficial is a move away from town-centre trading?

Phil Harding, owner of Blackcat records, moved his business from a store in a Bridge Street location, to an online operation, in January 2017.

He puts his decision to leave the town down to four key factors: high rents and rates, a decline in footfall over the last decade, an ‘unattractive’ trading area, and no plan to ‘revive’ the town.

Mr Harding believes there are some actions that could be taken to improve the situation in the town, including having a dedicated town centre manager or a business improvement district (BID).

“It’s not really possible to blame the current state of the town centre on one event,” he said.

“There has been a perfect storm of altered trading conditions, changing social motives and local authority incompetence at dealing with that, blended with an incoherent response from traders and operators.

“National economics, Brexit and online retail have all played their part as well.

“There are however, some obvious steps that need to happen to both slow the decline and better yet, make the town centre a better place.

“There is no town centre management or BID. Taunton is the biggest town in England with no town centre manager or management team. It is also one of the very few towns without a BID. The result is that vast sums of potential money are being left untapped, and there is incoherence to any activities or any events that occur.”

Mr Harding believes adopting a BID would leave the authorities with a pot of money from larger retailers to put towards improving the town centre, as well as increased funding to events such as a Christmas lights switch-on event.

In relation to his business, which Mr Harding says is in a ‘state of flux’, moving online has allowed him to make some smart business moves.

He added: “As for me, the record industry is in a state of flux, on the one hand we all hear of a vinyl revival, but on the other, this applies to a tiny slice of the business.

“The same things that impact many retailers around online selling are impacting me. Moving from the town centre was me managing and getting ahead of declining retail sales. Online has allowed me to cut costs, thus making the business leaner for these turbulent times.”

Somerset County Gazette:

‘STATE OF FLUX’: Phil Harding of Blackcat Records

That leaves us with a lot of empty shops - so how will fill them? The answers lies in providing something that cannot be bought online - experience.

Jim Claydon, past president of the Royal Town Planning Institute and a Taunton Deane resident, says towns should not be complacent about the current siltation, and shouldn’t expect trends to change any time soon.

He said: “Town centres across the UK are facing an unprecedented challenge as a result of changes in the shopping habits of consumers, primarily the switch to online shopping. This means that shopping trips to purchase clothes, books, household items etc have declined and consequently, the viability of individual shops, and more generally town centres, is less secure.

“The result is an increase in vacant shops and shops with much lower turnover, for example charity shops, and non-retail uses such as betting shops.

“The overall result is a less dynamic and attractive town centre environment.

“Taunton is less badly hit than some other centres and has, for example retained its Marks & Spencers and department stores, which other comparable towns have lost.

“However, no town can be complacent about this and we must expect this trend in shopping habits to continue.

“The answer has to lie in doing two things. Firstly, consolidating the existing town centre and not allowing competition from new out-of-centre retail development. Secondly, there needs to be encouragement given to active uses, for example cafes/bars/restaurants/entertainment, as well as bringing residential uses back into the centre.

“Specialist shops offering niche products and market stalls are more likely to bring in shoppers and we may see town centres reverting to a more old-fashioned feel.”

Mr Claydon said developments such as Coal Orchard could work to the town’s benefit as it’s close enough to the centre and could enhance shopping and leisure, but the same can’t be said for Firepool.

He added: “The proposal to base the redevelopment of Firepool on a supermarket, at a time when the big four are closing more stores than they are opening, looks to be optimistic in the extreme.

“It is too far out for the town centre to benefit from any investment there and is liable to be counterproductive in Taunton’s attempts to revive the central area.

“Firepool should revert to its originally intended purpose, which was to generate jobs, economic activity and hopefully new enterprises supported by housing development.

“That would ensure a greater catchment of consumers using the town centre shops and facilities and, consequently, be a double boost to the county town’s regeneration.”