I am writing in a personal capacity, on behalf of other retailers in the town regarding our thoughts and opinions on the future of retailing in Farnham. I am a Farnham retailer, have been in (and survived) the retail world for more than 40 years through five recessions and the radical changes to the High Street retailing sector.
The Farnham Infrastructure Programme (FIP) will have the most effect on the independent retailers and businesses in the town. There will be impacts during implementation, with road closures and traffic management which, even with mitigation, will drastically impact footfall and turnover and therefore livelihoods. The impacts of this will need to be offset against future benefits.
If we want a thriving town centre, we should be listening to the independents who put their money and souls into running a business within our town.
For Farnham to continue to be successful it must anchor its image as a destination town. At least 75 per cent of trade comes from outside the five miles of Farnham. These are the customers we need to encourage and build on and increase. Shopping to many is an experience which, as retailers, we wish to enhance.
Therefore, the town needs to be accessed easily by car and have sufficient parking in the centre, coupled with much-improved public transport.
We are constantly bombarded by the ‘Active Travel’ agenda. However, the average shopper cannot get on their bicycle with their children and shopping, particularly if they are coming more than a few miles.
If the town does not remain car friendly, these customers are more likely to get in a car and head off to the chain stores outside town to shop to the detriment of Farnham. Shoppers will do what is easiest and best for them.
We need to recognise Farnham is a market town, not a suburb of a city. Therefore a car is a requirement and, with essentially no public transport in the villages, a necessity for our rural residents.
For Farnham to survive and flourish it must draw in customers from far afield. Any impediments to access will drive them elsewhere.
I am anti-pedestrianisation and over the years have seen towns fade and die, but I am pro-pedestrian and improved visitor experience. Pedestrianisation is a leftover from the brutalist 1960s and ’70s, when shopping malls were dumped into towns sucking out the life blood. It has not helped retail and has only quickened its demise. I cannot think of a single place where it has been successful.
We only need to look at nearby neighbours such as Farnborough, Basingstoke and Woking with their empty shops and a complete lack of soul and community.
In comparison, if we look at the Harper Dennis Hobbs studies, the most vital high streets are not pedestrianised. For example, Beaconsfield, Marlow, Henley-upon-Thames and Cobham, which have kept the town open to local traffic, are magnets for shoppers.
Farnham is lucky to still have a low vacancy rate and is in the top 12 most vital high streets in the country, without pedestrianisation.
For independents to thrive, their windows are their advertising and PR. They are not in the same situation as the well-known retail chains which have large advertising budgets and usually have branches in every town. Through traffic keeps customers aware of Farnham’s businesses and shops. Nor do we have the police presence which is required at night when pedestrian areas become dark, lonely and havens for anti-social behaviour.
The people who appear to be in favour of pedestrianisation have little or no experience in retail or running a business in a market town such as Farnham, or even shopping in our town.
As retailers, we are in favour of wider pavements, a 20mph zone, HGV ban, more street furniture, increased outdoor seating areas – all enhancing the pedestrian and visitor experience. There is an opportunity now to improve the retail experience while still allowing local through traffic, so independents continue to have the ability to advertise their business via their shop windows.
However, the changes to pavements etc in Farnham should be quick and on time with the least disruption. Small retailers will still be paying their rent, business rates, staff, utilities, insurance and stock – they have no recourse to compensation for lack of footfall because of roadworks.
Neither do they have the ability, as the big retail chains do, to offset losses on to other branches . Nor, as small retailers, do they have the cash flow or resources to survive a long disruption. They are still feeling the effects from the Covid lockdowns.
Therefore, improvements must be well thought through and carefully executed to create the minimum disruption to the town and its businesses. As retailers, we would hope the majority of work could be completed during the quiet months of the retail year (January/February and July/August).
If residents wish to have a thriving retail sector within Farnham, stakeholders need to listen to our small independent shops and businesses. Any restrictions imposed on consumers accessing the Farnham will radically affect the vibrancy of our lovely town.
We need to keep Farnham open to all shoppers.
Signatories of Cllr Martin's letter:
John Goodridge; Hamiltons Tea Rooms; Sweet Lizzy; Voila; Smallbone & Son; Claire Laughland; Loncherie; Paisley Cat; Travelling Bazaar; Ruby Jones Interiors; Gin and Chocolate; Farnham Tile; Loaf; Ruby La La; Mulberry Silks; Blue Bear Bookshop; Barista Lounge; Spikes and Curls; Room Ten; La Femme; Lower Lodge Candles; Rangers; Wallabies; Andre Noir; Colours; Prial; Coffee Diem; Headcase Barbers; Grant & Co; Elite Stitch.