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Love Local: How Bury St Edmunds town centre could look in the future

"The days of just going shopping and spending the whole day in town are gone,” says Mark Cordell.

This is an interesting comment from the chief executive of Our Bury St Edmunds, the group behind the town’s Business Improvement District (BID).

It may be his job to promote what Bury offers, but Mr Cordell also knows that retail is changing.

One in 10 UK high street shops are currently empty, according to recent figures, with 14,000 retail jobs being lost since Christmas Day.

Mike Kirkham and Mark Cordell in St John's Street
Mike Kirkham and Mark Cordell in St John's Street

Traditionally, Bury has been resilient to nationwide trends, and West Suffolk Council’s report for February showed 6.9 per cent of shops were vacant.

Mr Cordell said there were reasons to be cheerful. “Bury is the most thriving town centre in west Suffolk. It has everything. We have a theatre and a strong cultural showcase, a huge mix of independent and national shops, as well as a vibrant market.

“A number of national shops, such as Wagamama, have recognised Bury as the most vibrant centre in west Suffolk and chosen to open their first county shop here.”

The BID team tries to build on the town’s offering by organising events such as Independents Week, an effort in early July to promote the town’s shops, and helps promote Bury Ale Trail and the market. BID members can also benefit from training events and networking opportunities.

Working alongside Mr Cordell in the Woolhall Street base is Mike Kirkham, the BID’s business support and marketing officer.

He said: “Shoppers want to have a great variety and choice, and we have that in Bury. Of course there is also the Abbey Gardens and cathedral within walking distance. Independent shops are our unique selling point, as slightly more than 50 per cent of our retail is non-chain, which is consistently 10 to 15 per cent more than average.”

“Bigger units, like the one at the old PC World, will be hard to fill because of the high business rates.” - Mark Cordell

As part of Love Local, a Bury Free Press campaign to promote shopping in the town centre, shops such as Mick’s Cycles, Koti and Vinyl Hunter have shared their love for the town but also called for protection. Businesses such as these liaise with Our Bury St Edmunds about their challenges and ideas. BID chiefs can then lobby the council for some improvements, or organise a local campaign.

Such consideration is important at a time when high streets across the country are facing pressure from internet shopping. “There needs to be an even playing field,” said Mr Cordell. “The business rate system is unfair, as those in town centres are paying far higher rates while Amazon will pay much less as they are on large sites out of town. It needs looking at.

“Bigger units, like the one at the old PC World, will be hard to fill because of the high business rates.”

Against these challenges, Mr Cordell believes that Bury should not stand still in what it can offer with its town centre. And that could mean a new approach.

“For many people, the most valuable commodity is now time,” he said. “To make it good value, it has got to be a social centre where people can spend three or four hours. And there are so many things you can do in Bury St Edmunds.”

“It is not longer enough to just sell stuff, just to sell one thing” said Mr Kirkham. “We could see places offer several functions within one venue, like a clothes shop that also has a bar. I think shops will evolve.”

Mr Cordell added: “Abbeygate Cinema is a good example. You can enjoy a film there, but also use the venue to get food and drinks - it’s experiencial!”

By their own admission, there is only so much the group can achieve with its members. As Mr Cordell said: “We can knock on doors of every brand people have said they would like in Bury St Edmunds. But these companies are looking at detailed figures and demographics, so ultimately it would be out of our hands.”

Independents Day in Bury St Edmunds is returning in 2019
Independents Day in Bury St Edmunds is returning in 2019

However, by organising events such as the Ale Trail the BID is finding new ways to bring people into town, discovering shops and (hopefully) returning.

Their work has also paid off in recent weeks with the council’s announcement that pay-on-exit parking is be trialled.

“I am glad to hear this,” said Mr Cordell. “At the moment we have pay and display parking, so when their limit is due they have to either put more money on the ticket or, more likely, head off. We want people to be able to stay for as long as they want.”

Bury’s geographical positioning is to its advantage in providing a centrepoint between Cambridge and Ipswich. This does bring the additional challenge of how to attract young people, for which Mr Cordell wonders if there is enough on offer. He added that a more frequent rail service could help – but also be a double edged sword if it meant more shoppers were travelling to London.

“All we can do is continue to be positive. Bury is a town based upon quality. We want people to have an experience here that leaves them wanting to come again.”