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Issue 329 – Frome – a shining example for Government’s high street project?

THE Government has asked retail guru Mary Portas, of TV’s ‘Mary Queen of Shops’ and ‘Secret Shopper’ fame, to undertake a review of England’s high streets. And she could do worse than visit Frome to see how successful the town has been at fighting the recession.

That’s the view of local traders and councillors who responded to a Frome Times initiative to find out the health of Frome’s high street shops.
And while traders in many towns are struggling due to the recession, car parking charges, and competition from the internet, Frome has maintained a lively mix of independent retail shops and businesses.

Grow and thrive

Damon Hooton, a town and Mendip district councillor agrees saying, “I think we should invite Mary Portas to Frome to see how a wide variety of businesses in a small market town can grow and thrive.
“We have some amazing shops in Frome and I think she’d love Catherine Hill and Cheap Street. We have a really good mix now and although things could always be better, with most available shops full most of the time, I don’t think we’re doing too badly.”
Duncan Skene, who has been involved with public meetings about the Saxonvale site, adds that it is Frome’s unique character that makes it successful. “I think it would be great for Frome to be used as a case study by Mary Portas,” he said. “Frome has not yet been ruined by national retailers, but is very much at a crucial juncture in its history.

Unique & independent

“It’s too late for towns like Trowbridge and Shepton Mallet as market forces have already stripped out most of their distinctiveness, replacing it with ‘anytown’ housing and anonymous character-free chainstores. Frome still has its uniqueness and its independence. Frome is still special. I hope Ms Portas will come to Frome to see that not all towns need to be the same and that identikit town centres are not inevitable.”
Martin Short, president of the Frome and District Chamber of Commerce said, “Frome is managing to hold its head up high despite the recession, and I am pleased that some of the shop units that had been empty have now been let and are occupied. This all helps to attract people into the town centre.
“An important characteristic of Frome is the wealth of independent shops and businesses in the town, and the development of special markets in the town, all of which help to make Frome uniquely attractive to shoppers and visitors.”
However, leaders and businesses in the town recognise that improvements can be made in some areas.
One issue that has been raised is the problem of traffic, and making the town safe and easy for pedestrians to use.

Pedestrian crossings

Luke Wilde, a trustee of Black Swan Arts said, “The traffic priorities are a mess. We need a 20mph speed limit, more safe pedestrian crossing places and a design which gives priority to the pedestrian, not the car”.
Tony Gibson of the St Catherine’s Association of Traders adds, “The high street would benefit from some trees and a zebra crossing at the St Catherine’s end of the high street.”
Martin Short of the Frome and District Chamber of Commerce says that traffic management is just one of the issues important for making the town centre a pleasant environment where people want to shop and socialise.
“The street scene and the built environment have to be equally attractive, so careful attention needs to be paid to maintaining and improving these characteristics in the High Street,” he said. “Examples of how to achieve this would be to make sure buildings are well maintained, shop windows are attractive, streets are safe and clean, traffic is well managed with safe pedestrian crossings, seats and benches are provided, markets are encouraged, and flowers and trees are installed and maintained.
“All of these things are of course an ongoing project in any town, and if these things can be achieved and maintained, a High Street will flourish.”
Mary Gibson of The Golden Goose has several concerns about the town and she has already submitted her comments to Mary Portas saying, “We have been successfully trading in Frome as an independent gift/ lifestyle shop for nearly 10 years. In all that time the street furniture has not been painted once (despite requests), – this gives a very poor impression to shoppers and visitors making the town look run down. Surely there should be an obligation for the councils to maintain them on a regular basis, and also to properly take into consideration the views of traders before changes to parking etc., not just listen and then disregard. We pay a fortune in rates but get little back- not even a general rubbish collection.
“We are fortunate in having a large number of independents still trading, but are now seeing more chains filling empty premises, and are very concerned that Tesco are negotiating to put a large store in the town. There is no mechanism by which they can be stopped .
“We have also suffered with the exodus to Bath and Bristol courtesy of the free bus pass, coupled with increases in parking charges. All these effects are beyond the retailers power to change.
“Frome has done all it can to keep shoppers coming here to shop, having a monthly Artisan Market and the annual Frome Festival, but much is out of our control.”
In her national report, Mary Portas will look at the problem of empty shops and how to prevent the growth of “clone towns” dominated by chainstores.
She says, “With town centre vacancy rates doubling over the last two years, the need to take action to save our high streets has never been starker.
“I am calling on businesses, local authorities and shoppers to contribute their ideas on how we can halt this decline in its tracks and create town centres that we can all be proud of.”
Mary Portas is due to present her findings to the Government in the autumn.

Do you think that Frome is a shining example of a thriving high street or do you think that more could be done to improve the town centre? E-mail us at or leave your comments on our facebook or twitter pages. ( or search for us on facebook).

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