Re-opening retail - Garstang sets up new Market Town Working Group in fight back against Covid-19

How do retailers fight back against Covid-19? Following an extraordinary meeting one Lancashire town has the beginnings of an answer, as Fiona Finch reports.

By Fiona Finch
Wednesday, 10th June 2020, 8:14 am

"Ferocious and traumatic" is how one county shopkeeper sums up the impact of lockdown on local businesses.

Newsagent Richard Whyman submitted an open letter to Garstang Town Council on behalf of the town's business community describing the issues the market town will face as it seeks to reopen for business.

The town in microcosm reflects the challenges facing every county high street as it struggles to find new ways of operating safely amid the ongoing threat of Covid-19.

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Richard Whyman (left) of Market Place News wrote an open letter to Garstang Town Council

Richard called for the immediate creation of a market town working group to urgently address the steps needed to ensure the town on the banks of the river Wyre is safe to visit and to rebuild its lost trade.

Last night the town council held an online extraordinary meeting, called by mayor Coun Elizabeth Webster and such a group was created.

The new Market Town Working Group, with representatives from town and borough and county councils, the Town Trust, retailers and local organisations, is beginning work today.

Opening the debate on the issue Coun Webster stressed: " I hope we can work together for a prosperous town centre during these unprecedented times, not just in the short term but to look at our medium and long term goals and aspirations."

Garstang mayor Coun Elizabeth Webster chaired the extraordinary meeting

It will be lead by deputy mayor Coun Alec Allan.There was much agreement during the 90 minute meeting that it was time for all sections of the community to work together with a common goal.

Richard Whyman, speaking on behalf of 17 businesses on the high street, repeatedly stressed the urgent need to create practical working solutions to the challenges presented by Covid-19 and said :"We need to find a way we can support everybody and get everybody out of this deep, deep hole we're in ...This is absolutely critical - that the town adopts a plan immediately and does things,"

He said local expertise and knowledge should be harnessed, for example on managing spaces and crowds and to formulate a safe way of moving people around the town.

Stressing that the Town Council should take the lead he said: "At present the town is the equivalent of a stage coach with a horse on each corner and it's not moving in the same direction. We have to bring all the elements of the town together, harness these horses and all move in the same direction.

He warned that while priority should be given to accessing the town and how to open businesses up: "There is potential chaos if we don't think it through."

He said simple things could create problems - for example if there was a queue for the bank it would cross the entrances to several shops: "We have to work in a completely different way now. There isn't time to formulate groups and set agenda. ."

His letter outlined issues ranging from creating a Welcome Back initiative, to the safety of the high street, reducing speed limits to 10 -15 mph, social distancing in a compact town centre, free car parking by the riverside, new town maps and signs, using bollard signs to "help build a culture of slowing and being aware" and marketing the town as a retail destination. Any rescue plan could, he said: "grow into an exciting opportunity for our communities in the future."

County Coun Shaun Turner said the Government had asked the County Council to "get in place and scale up local infection control plans" to cope with what was now "the new normal" going forward, as efforts are made to kick start the economy. He said more information would be available soon.

Wyre Coun Dulcie Atkins also stressed it was important to work together so Garstang could once again become "the vibrant market town it was before the pandemic."

She added: "We have to make sure Garstang is a safe place and open to business." She pledged to check local parking arrangements and said there was a need to look again at poster signage for the main A6 outlining Garstang's attractions.

Ruth Bruce from the Garstang FairTrade group raised the issue of looking at reducing social distancing from two metre to one metre, as discussed on social media. She said: " I was going to suggest if that is possible surely that would help Garstang with the distancing in tight streets."

Gordon Harter of Garstang Town Trust said the Trust was looking into the possibility of reopening the town's market this Thursday and having volunteers to help with directions and the siting of more spaced out stalls. But town Councillor Roger Brooks argued that the market's customers do not bring their custom to local retail businesses, saying: "They are a different type of customer...they may go to a restaurant/cafe." He said it was essential to get traders working together, rather than being in different groups.

Naomi Walker from the Independent Garstang Traders (IGT) group said: "There's a real opportunity here...a lot of businesses are looking ahead to see what we can do to make our business premises safer."

Prior to lockdown the IGT had also raised issues with the council about the impact of Coronavirus. Coun Allan had argued that recovery from Coronavirus should be the first step on a regeneration journey for the town, including what to do about empty shop units and how to help new businesses survive through their first few years and prevent startup failures.

Lyn Nickson , speaking as a member of the town's Chamber of Trade (IGT) and Town Trust said she had counted 140 plus individual businesses in the town centre. Backing Richard Whyman's comments, she said: "My great concern is that we have lost the ability to communicate verbally. I think people need to talk to each other. I think as well as a town team we need our ambassadors ... people don't always respond to say Facebook. Sometimes they just want a face to face conversation."

Lyn volunteered to be part of such a team.

Another local shopkeeper jeweller Damian Carr said: "We all want the best for the high street ...The schisms have to stop. There are so many good things going on in the town."

The group's first task is to make an application to Wyre Council for funding for a share of Wyre's government funded £99,180 Reopening High Streets Safely Fund pot. Applications have to be submitted by 5pm on Wednesday June 10. Such grants could help fund social media safety campaigns, banners, one way signage, social distancing signage etc.

*Extract from Richard Whyman's Open Letter to Garstang Town Council:

"The impact of lockdown has been ferocious and traumatic. The town centre businesses were either forced to close or trade in new and enterprising ways. This was done with great spirit and commitment to helping the rural area. Traders have worked together to help keep going....But our communities remain disorientated and concerned for their welfare. They have learnt new ways of using retail using online methods. The easing of lockdown will not automatically reinstate Garstang's trading, it will require hard work and initiative to restore the town's footfall."