There’s been debate about the future use of the great British high street.

Taunton like the rest of the country has suffered and the debate in the town has looked at whether East Street should be traffic-free or not.

Guest columnist MIKE GINGER, of Taunton Area Cycling Campaign, gives his take on the various arguments.

HIGH streets across the UK lost more than 17,500 chain store outlets in 2020.

As we know, Taunton did not escape this.

The relentless retail decline of high streets stems from a number of powerful factors which are unlikely to be reversed.

Online shopping now accounts for around 30 per cent of sales, and this is an additional hit on top of the edge of town retail parks sucking vitality out of the traditional centres.

Business rates and high rents are also seen as factors having an impact.

Unfortunately, nostalgia will not bring back the old town centre that people knew and rightly loved.

There is a pressing need to move on.

So what to do?

There seems to be a wide consensus that town centres need to re-invent themselves - not only for retail but also as social, educational and cultural hubs.

The retail guru Mary Portas argues strongly that the high street could only survive by “recognising what’s happened and delivering something new”.

Experts in the field believe that our town centres need new uses alongside retail - things such as shared work spaces, leisure attractions, more food and drink and residential.

Town centres will need to become places that people want to visit and spend time in, rather than just short ‘convenience’ destinations.

Although having main streets open to through traffic may give short term convenience to some, it diminishes safety and enjoyment for many.

My own experience of pushing someone in a wheelchair along East Street, especially when crossing the road, was a clear reminder of how bad it can be.

The opportunity for improving the visitor experience in Taunton by extending its car free arrangement appears to have been recognised by many people.

Approximately 2,000 people responded to Somerset West and Taunton (SWT) Council’s consultation - the highest response the council has ever received.

A significant majority supports the extension.

And a recent snapshot poll - admittedly not scientific - by the County Gazette online at showed 63 per cent in favour.

But some businesses believe that they will lose trade and some groups argue that they should be given access.

These issues need to be addressed.SWT is running a series of stakeholder workshops to find solutions, as they did with St James Street.

High quality public realm is also thought to be key.

The benefits of environmental improvements were looked at in detail in a report called ‘The Pedestrian Pound’.

The study researched dozens of examples.

It found: ‘‘Compared with other often more costly transport options, improving a place for pedestrians and cyclists can offer a good return on investment, especially for retailers.”

“However, such investments can not only lead to improved retail sales, but such urban regeneration can also have positive impacts on:

nFurther investment and business start ups. For example, public realm investment can lead to increased employment as other businesses (cafes etc) may start up in an area that has been made more pedestrian friendly;

nThere are also direct employment benefits for those involved in the construction of new public realm projects;

nProperty prices and rental yields;

nCase examples from around the world are offered showing a positive relationship between walkability and house prices, rates, and commercial land value;


nImproving walkability can also help improve inclusion and reduce inequality.’’

The report also challenges some perceptions regarding car use and improving parking for our high streets.

It says: “It is often assumed that more parking is the answer to struggling high streets, however this is not supported by available research.

The report adds: “Retailers have been shown to over-estimate the importance of the car for customer travel.

“In these studies, more people walked, cycled or came by bus.

“Case study evidence suggests that restricting traffic does not reduce the number of customers.”

Also, put quite simply, places that are pedestrian and cyclist friendly also tend to be more attractive to place users.

“In that respect, the quality of public spaces is linked directly to people’s perceptions of how attractive it is.

“If people have positive perceptions of a place, they are more likely to shop there.’’

It is encouraging that Somerset West and Taunton Council has recently been awarded £13million from the High Street Fund to begin to improve the quality of experience in our town centre streets.

This could then enable us to take a big step in the right direction.

So, let’s all get behind the efforts to re-invent and to regenerate our Taunton town centre.