OUR TOWN and city centres are entering a critical period, with the combination of increasing inflation, a reduction in disposable income and worries about the future of our economy post Brexit all combining to suggest the potential for a perfect storm ahead.

Bradford, as we all know, has suffered from a crisis of confidence over the last twenty or so years which has left us playing catch-up with places like Leeds and Harrogate and led to delays in expanding and improving the city centre shopping offer.

The long wait for The Broadway shopping scheme – and, for those with longer memories, the abject failure of the plan to build “Bradford’s own Meadowhall” on the Forster Square retail park area – made it easy for some of those big name stores that are common on many high streets to avoid committing themselves to the city.

But there is no doubt that The Broadway, along with City Park and, to a smaller extent, Sunbridgewells, has prompted a revival of interest and renewed belief in Bradford city centre as a leisure and retail destination.

So it is disappointing to read that the city had the highest net fall in the number of retail sector businesses in all of Yorkshire and the Humber in 2016. The latest annual survey compiled by the Local Data Company for PwC showed there were 19 new openings in Bradford city centre last year but 36 closures, a net fall of 17.

Perhaps surprisingly, the tourist honeypot of York suffered the second worst decline, with a net reduction of 16, although it’s likely the devastating floods of Boxing Day 2015 had an impact on some.

By contrast, Brigg, Leeds and Harrogate had net single figure increases. But the overall picture was concerning, with more closures than openings across the region as a whole and the highest net decline in stores across Britain since 2012.

The research showed that the fastest growth in new businesses is among tobacconists (go figure...), jewellers, toy shops and coffee shops while the big multiples that suffered the most were fashion shops, banks and other financial institutions.

PwC says that shows our town and city centres are changing, with traditional high streets becoming “leisure and experience” destinations with clothing shops, in particular, giving way for the “insatiable appetite” for fast food and coffee shops.

That, in itself, is surely not such a bad thing? Town and city centres need people to visit them in order to thrive and if coffee shops are booming it must mean more people are coming.

But we need to make sure they spend money when they do visit if we want shopping centres to exist at all. There are some who believe that city centres should accept their fate and we should all get used to buying everything online and having it delivered direct to our door.

What a soul-less existence that would be, never seeing or talking to anyone but the parade of delivery people with the sum total of our interaction with each one being “Sign here, please” and “Thanks.”

City centres do need to re-invent themselves and retailers have to find cleverer ways to draw people in and boost footfall alongside the growth in leisure facilities.

Perhaps part of the answer is to think like modern gastro-pubs. Many failing drinking holes, abandoned by smokers, have been rescued by changing their offer from places to meet and drink to places to meet, eat and drink.

Where pubs have gone under, it has often been because there wasn’t enough of an offering to induce people to walk away from their TV sets and enjoy time with other human beings. Good quality food in pleasant surroundings where you can enjoy good company in a smoke-free environment is clearly a draw for many people.

But surely, like pubs, the onus must be on all of us to show that we value the experience and vote with our feet.

In other words, use it or lose it.

Don't give in to threat from market forces

HELPING town centres survive also means protecting them from influences which would draw people away and Bingley is a case in point. It’s good news work to demolish the former Auction Mart is due to start this week but as yet no plans have been submitted for its future use.

Whatever happens, efforts to prevent it being developed for retail must be maintained to prevent hard-pressed town centre traders from being hit. Far better to use it for business start-ups and job creation, thereby providing new customers for the shops. Now that’s a win-win.

Could rent relief be the way out of this suburban jungle?

STARING out of the window on Easter Sunday as the increasingly heavy rain drenched the garden, I was trying to work out why it is that I never seem to have time to mow the lawn when it’s dry?

The result, of course, is grass approaching five inches high which is going to need at least two cuts before I can even consider leaving it for the mandatory three dry days prior to applying the weed and feed.

I am told, however, by a survey of 2,000 people for a fencing company, that Britons would pay an average of £35,000 on top of a property’s value if it had outdoor space, because we all love gardening so very much. Which made me wonder if I could just rent mine out on sunny days when I’m too busy to do it myself? Any volunteers?