Shopping in Swindon, in both the town centre and Old Town, should become more of a leisure experience and a place to enjoy rather than just a buying mission.

That’s the case put forward in a report put to councillors sitting on the borough council’s growing the economy overview and scrutiny committee.

The report says trends in the increase of online shopping, which has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has seen the share of retail spend taken by real shops decline.

It said: “The way people shop in town centres is changing. Shoppers are moving away from transactional retail shopping and increasingly view town centres as leisure or 'experiential' opportunities.”

As a consequence, the report says 54 national retailers ceased trading in 2020, with 5,314 shops closing, the highest number since the 2008-9 financial crisis.

But, it said, there are opportunities for independent traders: “Independent and boutique retailers able to offer unique products or a more personalised service have flourished.

The number of complementary 'experiential' and leisure activities such as coffee shops, hairdressers and delis increased in recent years.

“This is exhibited in Swindon town centre where the number of empty shops has actually reduced in recent years, mainly due to the increase in independent traders.”

The council’s plan is to encourage independent shops and to encourage the town centre being more of a leisure destination. 

It said some of the £200,000 of the government’s Welcome Back fund awarded to Swindon is being used to cheer the town up with better lighting, planting and making it greener. 

It added: “Murals are being introduced to create distinct local identity and dwell spaces and town centre events are encouraged to increase dwell -time and overall spend.”

That could see mini-parks introduced to give people places to sit and more events such as the urban beach installed in Wharf Green in 2018.

Shoppers and traders had a broadly supportive view.

Eileen Martin, who works at the Rainbow bookshop run by St Aldheim’s Chapel said: “It’s got to be worth trying – anything to get more people coming in to town. There are so many empty shops around, it’s  depressing.”

Shopper Jas Bhatt said: “I hope it works – more events and little festivals would be good. There’s the space here, and it’s good when they have events up in Old Town.
Not everyone was so optimistic.  Pasquale Bretti runs No 1 Street Cafe and he said the issue is high rents and rates. 

He said: “The big companies can’t stay. Someone said the rents and rates are higher than in London. That’s ridiculous, we can’t  pay that."

“Top Shop went because it couldn’t make a deal. If the bigger companies can’t afford to stay then little independent won’t be able to either.”

The vast majority of shop units in the town centre are privately owned, and while Swindon Borough Council collects business rates the amount payable is set by central government and the money distributed by Whitehall.

Cabinet member for the town centre Dale Heenan said: “Swindon is lucky to have the Designer Outlet, Old Town and the town centre. 

“Few remember that each area has a different target audience, different shops and each is busy. The Office of National Statistics and the Swindon Advertiser have shown that our town centre has fewer empty shops than at the start of Covid. This is because as the national retailers have gone bankrupt or been sold, it has been independents and entrepreneurs who are taking up the space.

"We have said for several years that this is the future and it is being embraced by the Brunel Centre, Parade and other building owners. The council will continue to work with inSwindon, the shops and owners to improve the overall experience.”

Coun Heenan added: “The main criticism of our town centre is focused on Fleet Street and Bridge Street. It’s all privately owned, but is a priority area to secure more investment.

“Our long-term plan has seen £100 million secured in the last two years for our town centre, and it will all be spent in the next four years. We have a bright future and need to be more positive about our town.”

Labour’s spokesman for the economy Coun Kevin Small said: “It would be hard to disagree with a report that is stating something that has been obvious to so many Swindonians that our town centre is in decline. We are not the only town facing this problem, and the report is right on how to tackle this issue.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see the call to back local independent retailers and the push to change the town centre into an experience, as we campaigned heavily on these principles in our 2021 local manifesto. Perhaps the administration does listen to us after all.

“We have been competing with Bath, Oxford, and Cheltenham for years now, and we need a shopping experience that will make Swindon residents want to shop in Swindon and encourage people from outside to visit our town centre, especially those going to the outlets. 

“The creation of exciting events in the town centre will help to attract people, like a proper Christmas attraction that will bring people into the town centre not only during the day but in the evening as well. If Swindon town centre is to survive Swindon needs to think big and bold when it comes to attractions and small and independent for the new shopping and leisure experiences.   

“We need to look to successful councils such as Preston and Trafford, both run by Labour administrations, who have successfully implemented plans like this and if the administration wants some help reaching out, we’re happy to facilitate bringing in experience from councillors who have already successfully done this.”