Digital Towns by David Hanson
Published: Sunday 9 July 2017
How a Labour Town Council looked at new ways to support business and growth when bank closures hit.
The story of towns up and down the country have a worrying similarity: first many independent shops closed due to out-of-town retail, then the public services disappeared and now banks are closing at a rate of 300 a year since 1989 – a trend that has accelerated in recent years.
Cities have been able to weather this storm of the closures far better because of their sheer size, but towns are much more vulnerable. The general population trends in towns is of aging populations as young people move away to cities. This has left us with hollowed out town centres as businesses have struggled to maintain their foothold in a place with no destination activities – such as public services or banks.
The digital genie is now out of the bottle and it would be completely wrong to try and return it to where it came. Online retail and banking have become second nature to many people and they are beneficial to many groups. However, towns have been slow to react to these changes and harness the same forces which have undermined their sustainability.
This was very much the case of a town in my constituency of Delyn. Holywell, a town steeped in history and with so much to offer through tourism, has struggled in recent years. All banks bar one have now vanished, leaving only one town centre ATM for withdrawals and greatly restricted peoples and businesses access to banking facilities. The impact of this was clear from the get go. Businesses were concerned that people would no longer have a reason to visit the town centre and instead travel to the larger town of Mold or even further afield. Their fears bore out into reality. Small retailers started to close and we ended with a high street with little to see or do.
At the same time the town lost its Job Centre, due to UK Government cuts, which not only provides help and advice on securing work but also a place for people in need of support through social security to get help and advice. To put the town in perspective, one ward has a child poverty rate – after housing costs – of 42%. People are often in low-paid and insecure work and need support from the welfare system.
Footfall continued to decline in the high street and it struggled to attract new investment. Empty shops became a common sight undermining the pride people of Holywell had in their town.
A response was desperately needed and the one place with the positivity to do so was the Town Council. They started their regeneration scheme by doing what any good Town Council can and put on events to demonstrate that Holywell was still a town to be proud of. Building on the medieval heritage of the town the Council established an annual Medieval Festival with re-enactments, food stalls and performances in the high street. They have also started to secure antiques fares to take place on the Council’s premises bringing people into Holywell who wouldn’t have previously visited.
These events and festivals put the spark back into the town, but more was needed to help the businesses reclaim their rightful prestige.
During Labour Conference 2017 I met with the firm Square, who specialise in contactless card readers. During our discussions I noted how Holywell was working hard to recover from the pressures of bank closures but businesses were not able to benefit from the advances in technology and too many of them relied upon cash payments. Card readers, let alone contactless readers, supplied through Visa have high charges for small independent retailers and therefore people, who have now come to expect the ability to pay by card, were unable to spend in the town.
Square’s product offers much lower transaction fees than most other card readers and no standing charge. I was able to convince Square to launch the first ‘Digital Town’ in Wales with the retailers of Holywell. We were able to get an agreement whereby Square would give for free retailers in Holywell a card reader – usually charged at £40 per unit – and would launch a digital bursary for businesses. The Council got involved and helped raise awareness of this fantastic opportunity.
Over 90% of businesses on the high street took up the offer and businesses applied for the bursary. The bursary is worth £1000 and three businesses would be given these payments if they could demonstrate how they would harness digital technology. We recently handed over the cheques to businesses who will now be investing in e-commerce, something they never thought they could benefit from. Holywell Town Council’s desire to be a digital town and the aspiration to utilise technology, such as apps, has led to the creation of interactive tourist trails and support to shops. This drive showed the power of a town council to lead a community.
This is by no means the end of the story for Holywell. A lot more is still needed to be done. Investment is needed from the UK Government into infrastructure and people need the opportunity of secure decent jobs – for currently disposable income in the town is low. But the joint partnership of the Town Council, Square, local retailers and I have been able to give the town a renewed sense of optimism and hope for the future.
The digital divide is often talked about through the prism of urban versus rural. However, there is a growing problem between small retailers and large. Small businesses either do not have the expertise or instinct to use e-commerce. This undermines their ability to combat against the large multinationals who base their whole existence upon it. Many smaller businesses cannot afford the cost of card readers meaning customers are unable to shop in our increasingly cashless society.
Holywell is now a proud ‘digital town’. Labour led towns can replicate this and give our high streets the tools they need to exist in the 21st century.
The Newsnight piece can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLstY2o8PHc