THERE has been a huge decline in the use of Somerset’s high streets due to the Covid-19 pandemic - footfall has fallen and shops have closed.

High streets across the UK lost more than 17,500 shops in 2020. Taunton lost a major retailer – Debenhams – and multiple other shops in the town have closed due to the impact of the pandemic.

Big shopping villages in Somerset have closed too, with Kilver Court in Shepton Mallet announcing the decision to shut after ‘a difficult 18 months’.

The relentless retail decline of high streets stems from a number of factors which are unlikely to be reversed: online shopping now accounts for 30 percent of sales and business rates and rents are high. Since the pandemic, many people prefer to shop online rather than venture to their town centre.

According to data from the High Streets Task Force, the impact of Covid-19 has been ‘profound’, with footfall volumes in high streets and town centres falling by 89.86% during the first lockdown in March 2020.

But there seems to be a wide consensus that town centres need to ‘re-invent’ themselves to bring people back, and one way of doing this is through art.

In various Somerset towns, we are seeing the emergence of artwork. In Taunton, a rainbow path has been created to symbolize hope and progression in the town.

Somerset County Gazette: COLOURFUL: Opening of the Rainbow Path, Goodlands Gardens, Taunton

Executive member for sports, parks and leisure at Somerset West and Taunton Council, Cllr Derek Perry, has said artwork like the rainbow path can play a ‘key role’ for towns looking to attract new visitors.

“Imaginative displays such as the rainbow path in Goodland Gardens, can boost tourism and in turn local economies, which is now more important than ever in our recovery from Covid, not forgetting the creation of local jobs and the prospect of a better quality of life for those who live there,” he said.

READ MORE: Mayor opens rainbow path in Goodland Gardens, Taunton

Jenny Keogh, from GoCreate Taunton, who created the path, said the installation has already prompted a huge amount of interest, not only from residents in the town, but from people all over the UK.

“We have had people visiting from Plymouth, Brighton and Bristol to name but a few and people have been posting their selfies on it all over social media,” she said.

“People have tagged their local councils in posts asking when they can have something similar in their towns and cities.

“We all go about our lives in our own bubbles, and we rarely have to think about what it must be like to be someone else. Having a permanent visual installation like the rainbow pathway makes you stop and think.

“The obvious benefit is that culture brings in visitors, and this has a knock-on effect for everyone in our community including a boost to the economy with visitors staying in hotels, shopping and eating out.”

Somerset County Gazette: Opening of the Rainbow Path, Goodlands Gardens, Taunton Pic 1 ; Jenny Keogh [CEO ; Go Create], Sue Lees [Mayor of Taunton] and Liz Hutchin [Director ; Go Create]

One problem, however, is that installations like these involve a lot of ‘red tape’ said Jenny, and although they have plans for more installations in the town, funding for the projects can be difficult to secure.

Town centre manager for Taunton, Craig Stone, explained that many of the displays are subject to risk assessments to ensure visitor’s safety - and this ‘red tape’ can limit the type of art that can be displayed.

“Concerning the rainbow path, our events team liaised with stakeholders and community groups and undertook a range of safety checks following our safety policies and guidance set out by the joint Safety Advisory Group to assess the impacts,” he added.

“For example, through the team’s research, we established what paints to use to minimise adverse reactions in autistic people; or slips, trips and falls for those with reduced mobility.”

However, he also said there have been other art initiatives in the town with GoCreate including a Love WINdowS project in shop windows and a Follow Your Heart Trail, which consists of 20 large heart-shaped sculptures in the town. These have all been funded by the Emergency Town Centre Recovery Fund (ETCRF).

Somerset County Gazette: FOLLOW YOUR HEART: Taunton Pride have organised a series of events, including a festival day today (July 17)

Elsewhere in Somerset, art installations are also planned for Yeovil town centre. They are in the process of being designed and created and should be on display in 2022.

South Somerset District Council (SSDC) interviewed a range of artists earlier this year, and appointed YOU&ME Architecture and Beth Calverley, a poet, to develop concepts for the art work, which will be displayed at The Triangle. The work includes Yeovil Totems, a Yeovil poem, and Yeovil maps.

READ MORE: Art to be displayed at The Triangle in Yeovil

SSDC has said these works will help to create a ‘sense of community’ and ‘ownership of these spaces’, to help improve the town centre environment.

“Adding the artwork is another way to add interest to a town centre and as we know town centres are changing with the experience of the area being really important now,” said a spokesperson for SSDC.

“This is something new for us and is integrated into the public realm works. We will be monitoring footfall figures but will be doing this as part of the overall measures of whether visits to the town centre increase.”

One town that came up with this idea a few years ago is Croydon, in South London. Kevin Morrison, creator of the Croydon Street Art, first discovered the idea in Melbourne, Australia.

Eventually, Kevin decided to do something similar for Croydon and they invited artists to paint on 120 spaces in the town after they had consent from the landowners.

Somerset County Gazette: STREET ART: An example of the artwork in Croydon

“We had people visiting from all over,” said Kevin. “In some ways, the street art did have a lot of benefits. On the street where we were based, the footfall went up by 400% in the first six months of the initiative and there was a 70% increase in commercial unit occupancy - purely because more people visited and the streets got busier. It was really really exciting.”

The street art in Croydon changed regularly, to keep the same people coming back to look at the ever changing installations. Kevin says the art has to evolve, or people won’t come back to see it.

“The first couple of years, it was a great vibe in the town. It was great to hear positive things about Croydon, art allows the viewer to think about their own communities differently.”

However, Kevin says the art will only work if someone is prepared to take risks. Similarly to Jenny, he notes that there is a lot of ‘red tape’ when the council is involved and sometimes there are restrictions to the type of art that can be displayed.

“Once you get developers to fund it or the council getting to become part of it, it dilutes the art a lot,” Kevin added.

“If you don’t keep the ground level work going, then it starts to look unnatural and forced. Sometimes you have to be a bit edgy for it to work – some of the things I’ve done, I would never have got permission for.”

The art in Croydon is still going, but much of the land has been bought by developers and is being used to build houses.

If the art can continue to evolve and adapt to other changes in the town centre, then maybe this can help bring visitors back to our high streets.

After all, as Jenny said: “Love it or hate it, art starts a conversation, an opportunity to be educated… which is what life is about, learning and evolving.”