Huntingdon in top 10 resilient high streets - but ‘Queen of Shops’ invited to help

HUNTINGDON’S High Street has weathered the economic storm better than almost anywhere else in Britain, according to research for a nation newspaper.

And now the town’s shopkeepers have invited retail troubleshooter Mary Portas to visit Huntingdon to advise on further improvements.

The town’s centre was placed seventh in Britain’s top 10 for resilience by Synovate Retail Performance, the Milton Keynes-based global business practice that had been commissioned by The Sunday Times.

In spite of having lost the Marks and Spencer food store two years ago and toys-and-fashion independent Sports and Fashions in the past few weeks, footfall in Huntingdon’s central retail area has remained buoyant against a falling national trend – which has been replicated in St Neots, though not in Ramsey or St Ives.

Synovate’s sample base covers over 1.1 billion shopper visits per annum to more than 6,500 retail outlets across high streets, retail parks, designer outlets, shopping centres and malls every month throughout the UK.

Huntingdonshire District Council monitors footfall in the same week every autumn to identify trends.

Footfall in Huntingdon peaked in 2009 – but that was probably because the monitoring week coincided with the opening of the 99p store in the former Woolworths premises, which pushed the number of shoppers up to five per cent on the previous year.

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Although it fell back 3.8 per cent in 2010, there are still more shoppers in Huntingdon town centre than there were in 2006, before the recession began, town centre manager Katy Sismore, who has issued the invitation to Mary Portas on behalf of Huntingdon’s shops, told The Hunts Post yesterday (Tuesday).

Mrs Sismore said Huntingdon Town Partnership, which represents many of the retailers, could not claim sole credit for the town’s resilience. “I put it down to a partnership approach that has been in existence since 1998.”

Other involved included local authorities, including HDC’s chewing gum removal and street cleaning activities, landlords, Huntingdonshire Business Against Crime, Shopmobility and others.

“You have to have a clean town and a safe town in which retailers want to invest their money. It’s not a perfect town: for instance, we no longer have an independent toy shop. And we don’t have enough small units, except in side streets, to encourage independents.

“But, even though we lose some shops, others open to replace them.”

HDC said the number of empty retail units had fallen, and pointed to the mix of shops that made Huntingdon an attractive place to shop.

A spokesman said: “For Huntingdon to have been recognised as one of the best performing high streets is excellent news. The town centre offers a strong retail experience. Huntingdon has a higher percentage of retail shops than the national average, and the developments planned for the centre of Huntingdon over the coming years will help further improve the area and the customer shopping experience.”

The council is confident that the re-development of Chequers Court and the extension of the town centre across the ring road towards the railway line – where Sainsbury’s has planning consent for a new, larger store – will transform Huntingdon’s attractiveness as a shopping centre.

At the same time, the Federation of Small Businesses, which represents many of the smallest retailers in the town, is urging the council also to think small.

FSB Huntingdonshire chairman Malcolm Lyons said the town’s place in the Sunday Times table “shows the dynamic approach of Huntingdon”.

But he cautioned that high streets were difficult environments for small retail outlets. He is urging HDC to follow the example of Tendring District Council in Essex, which has set up a start-up shop where would-be retailers can test the market to see whether the public would buy from them.