Plans to transform St Neots Market Square take another step forward

There are plans to make St Neots Market Square the cultural hub of the town.

There are plans to make St Neots Market Square the cultural hub of the town. - Credit: ARCHANT

In my previous column, I talked about exciting plans to transform the Market Square in St Neots into the cultural and economic heart of the town.

It appears to be working already: three empty units in the town centre have been leased to businesses that plan to transform them into restaurants, bars and cafes, adding to the eclectic range of food and drink venues that St Neots has to offer.

However, as usual, not everyone is thrilled. "We need more shops, not more restaurants" is the most common complaint, followed by "why didn't the council put a clothes shop in that unit?"

This is based on the common misconception that councillors sit in dusty committee rooms deciding which shops can open in the town. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are deals between private landlords, who set the rents, and business owners who think they can profit from that location. Even the much-maligned business rates are set by central government rather than the council.

I do understand these complaints and am sympathetic to them. However, the truth is that we are all responsible for this decline of town centre retail through our shopping habits. We collectively chose the convenience of “everything under one roof” supermarkets over the quality of local grocery stores. We buy clothes in out-of-town retail parks, and our addiction to internet shopping has launched an armada of delivery drivers that constantly patrol residential streets.

What is missing from all those modern “retail experiences”, though, is people. To compete, our High Street needs to reinvent itself into a more social space based around human interaction. It needs to differentiate itself from the generic retail experience that we are force-fed in identical soulless retail parks up and down the country.

Cafes, restaurants and bars are at the heart of that, making the town centre a more pleasant place to spend time (and ultimately money). But so are independent retailers who offer more experiential shopping and a return to old fashioned values such as customer service and personal relationships.

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The High Street also needs to be more dynamic: there are already plans in place, driven by the business community, to fill empty high street units with an ever-rotating array of pop-up shops that will allow smaller retailers to market their wares to mainstream shoppers.

The future of the High Street is promising, but as with previous incarnations, its ultimate success depends entirely on our shopping habits. The more we support local businesses the more they will thrive, which in turn will attract an even wider array of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars to the centre of our beautiful market town.