District councils are looking to Belgium for ideas about how to revitalise town centres. Council leaders recently visited the Flanders town of Roeselare to learn how it has increased the number of visitors by more than 10,000 since 2014. These lessons have been included in the pamphlet Championing our High Streets.
The Flemish town has repurposed a disused church to a market space. They have also created a brand VANRSL – ‘from Roeselare’ – to encourage local people and products to celebrate their town. There is a maternity shop with an area for mums to feed and change their babies, with a visit from a maternity nurse twice a week.
The local authority in Roeselare has also started cracking down on landlords holding empty units through fines, offering tax reliefs for start-ups, and encouraging shared tenancies.
They have encouraged new business models such as stores offering more than one offering. For example, a women’s fashion store with a bar and micro-gym.
The town has also turned the library into a knowledge centre, including pop-up space for micro businesses.
Cllr John Fuller, chairman of the DCN, said that the delegation of district councillors was ‘enormously grateful’ to the mayor of Roeselare, Kris De Klercq, and his team. He said: ’As the lead authorities in areas granted Stronger Towns Funding and High Streets Funding, we know that districts must drive the change necessary to save our struggling towns. We have many of the tools for transformation, through our responsibilities covering housing, planning and growth, but we know that solutions lie not just in the bricks and mortar – but in the communities we serve and we must champion what makes our towns different to deliver real change.;
‘In a country with 1,186 towns, with their populations varying between 5,000 and 225,000, covering over half the population in England and Wales – there are no silver bullets,’ said Cllr Fuller.
‘Each of these areas has different needs, challenges and opportunities. But if each is to remain relevant and vital, local leadership is needed to shape and to develop each space.
‘Districts, as the building blocks of local communities, will be responsible for driving the change necessary to save our struggling town centres, and the experience of Roeselare shows exactly how we can overcome the challenges we face and deliver a high street renaissance.
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