Observer Comment: Report statistics struck fear into the hearts of traders

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JUST before Christmas, TV presenter and retail expert Mary Portas published her review into the decline of high streets.

It contained statistics that struck fear into the hearts of even the bravest traders, who are only too aware of how the retail landscape has changed in recent years.

Last year alone, an estimated 20 shops have closed every day across the country and in the UK one in seven high street shops currently stand empty.

The reasons for this are manifold: among them, the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, supermarkets now selling a plethora of goods apart from food, not forgetting the sharp increase in online sales.

Completing the picture is the economic downturn which has drastically hit town centres.

Our own town centre has not escaped the impact, as this week’s news of three shops closing in Priory Meadow underlines.

We dearly hope these units don’t stand empty for long and new businesses take their place, otherwise shoppers are likely to bypass Hastings entirely and head for Eastbourne or Brighton - if they don’t already - which boast bigger names and more outlets.

In her review, commissioned by the Government, Mary Portas called for urgent action to reinvent our high streets, such as turning shops into gyms, crèches, youth clubs, arts buildings, coffee bars and community town halls.

She also recommends encouraging car-boot sales and markets in town centres, and reducing parking charges.

Some of her suggestions are drastic but maybe that’s what we need to breathe new life into our struggling high street areas.

These places are at the heart of our community and will need to adapt to survive.

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THE New Year’s Honours have not passed by our town, with Kate Adams director of Project Art Works made an MBE for services to the arts and disability.

This honour is well-deserved as it gives recognition to someone who has made an undeniable contribution to society - The Big Society at work, if you like.

The impressive Project Art Works programme also shows that Hastings is already a cultural hub, and while the opening of the Jerwood may well bring prestige, it is our local artists such as Ms Adams and her team, who have the knowledge and connections to really think creatively and make a difference to people’s lives.