Future High Streets Fund

15 May, 2019

The Future High Streets Fund was a competitive funding process designed to create transformational change for a town centre facing severe difficulties. The concept was to create long-lasting change, both through physical changes to the town centre, addressing the shift in the town centre’s core areas and also exploring the role of technology. All of this whilst admitting that the role of retail has changed and emphasising the need for a great user experience to draw people in through events and great customer service.

Following discussions between Torridge District Council and local towns a bid was submitted on behalf of Bideford. Discussions were held with Bideford Town Council, Torridge District Council ward members, local business leaders and traders to create a plan which could work for the town and wider community. The section below is taken from that application.

Population and links to wider economic area:
Information on the population living and working in the town centre area, how the area acts as a centre of social and economic activity and its links to the wider economic catchment area.
With supporting evidence to include:
Resident and workplace population, travel to work catchment area, town centre footfall, commercial space, retail activity, cultural activities, diversity of uses and social/ historical importance of the centre
Please limit your response to 750 words.

The urban area of Bideford has a population of 19,827 as of 2017, having increased nearly 10% in the six years since 2011 (NOMIS, BUA small area population), and by 28% over the period 1991-2011. Bideford forms part of a wider urban conurbation that is home to a significant proportion of the population of the District; and when the largely service-dependent population of Northam (10,782 persons as of 2017) is added, the resident urban-based population rises to over 30,000 people. The town also services a wide rural hinterland, stretching westerly along the northern coast to the Hartland peninsula and inland to the south.

Traditionally Bideford has been seen as the poor cousin of neighbouring Barnstaple. Whereas Barnstaple attracted a variety of national chains Bideford has maintained its independent nature, avoiding becoming an identikit town. Bideford has character, heritage and charm, yet opportunities for developments have not been maximised. Cultural activities focus around the regionally-renowned Burton at Bideford art gallery and museum, although increased cultural opportunities are developing alongside Libraries Unlimited’s cultural programme. There is also a thriving sports scene in the town.

The town serves as the principal centre within the District for retail, service, employment and administration, supported by the other smaller market towns of Great Torrington and Holsworthy and complementing the nearby sub-regional centre in Barnstaple. Accordingly, as of 2012, Bideford town centre attracted the largest share of comparison spend from the northern Devon catchment for the District, achieving a 6.7% (£35.2m) share, with a further 4.3% (£22.7m) captured by the out-of-town retail centre - Affinity Outlet (Atlantic Village) on the outskirts of the town. The other market towns of Great Torrington and Holsworthy in the District achieved 1.3% (£7m) and 2.3% (£12.1m) respectively. This compares to a 39.3% (£207.9m) share achieved by the town centre of the Sub-regional Centre (Barnstaple) whilst leakage to centres outside of the catchment area (such as Exeter) sat at 21.8% (£115.3m) (Retail and Leisure Study 2012; Peter Brett Associates).

As of 2018, 45.4% of the ground floor units within the defined town centre boundary are shops (A1), with 14.4% providing Professional and Financial Services (A2). A further 13,4% comprise restaurants, cafes, drinking establishments and takeaways (A3, A4 & A5); with a vacancy rate of approximately 10%. The dominant uses fall within the range of “A” use classes, at a level of 73%, of which 60% provides a mix of convenience and comparison retail stores. The majority of units within Bideford Town Centre provide comparison shopping, which is dominated by independent retailers (town centre survey, August 2018).

Going forward, the Local Plan requires the town to accommodate a minimum of 4,139 new dwellings over the twenty year period up to 2031, with a minimum of 1,916 further dwellings in nearby Northam. The town centre itself  (based on proxy of constituent Super Output Areas) holds  just over 6% (1,249 persons) of the population of the wider urban area of the town as of 2017, a figure that has remain broadly static since 2011.

Traditionally Bideford and Torridge overall have been net exporters of our workforce- the annual population Survey of 2011 put this at a net out flow of 5,593. Nonetheless, this process has created significant traffic issues along the A361 to Barnstaple with associated environmental, productivity and wellbeing concerns.

The 2011 census cited that the home-working population of Torridge was 19.8%. This crucial group could have a seismic impact on the commercial wellbeing and sustainability of the town centre, especially as we seek to address the shift away from traditional retail-dominated models. There are also long-standing productivity and growth issues across the district (per head output was at £16,094 in 2017, the lowest in Devon) and only 230 start-ups were created in 2016, the second lowest in the county.  We see the lack of inter-connection opportunities as a huge impediment to growth and productivity and are taking steps to address it, for example through a hot-desking workhub and networking facility.

Bideford’s heritage is largely based around its previously thriving commercial port, once the third largest in Britain. It is a central facet of the town’s identity, but shipping numbers have dwindled and its current low levels of trade mean that currently only limited use can be made of the prime quayside asset. As such, it has become a drain on the town’s resources and appearance rather than being the driver of economic success which the waterfront could, and should, be.

We recognise that each place will see different challenges. Supporting evidence on the challenges facing areas could cover the following:
• Proportion and/or number of vacant properties
• Openings/closures of commercial units
• Diversity of uses in the town centre area
• Resident/customer surveys
• Pedestrian flows and footfall trends
• Evidence of congestion and air quality
• Perception of safety and occurrence of crime
• State of town centre environmental quality including provision of green spaces
• Accessibility
• Housing demands

Decline of the role of the town centre and its community impact

The town of Bideford has experienced an increase in vacancy rates within its retail units which marginally surpass that of the national average experiencing a 1.29% increase, compared to the UK average of 0.3% increase between the years 2017 to 18. This has resulted in an 11.59% vacancy rate. However, there is a growing concern at the growing prevalence of charity shops and hairdressers which have swept across previous retail areas, resulting in a less diverse offer within our town centre. The District of Torridge also has a higher number of employees within the accommodation, food and retail trade industries compared to the South West and British average (Torridge 31.9%, South West 25.8% and GB 22.7%). The majority of these focus on Bideford, highlighting the importance of the town retaining an attractive High Street. Yet these sectors are all relatively insecure, creating potentially unstable employment if footfall and engagement is not improved.

The town’s economic situation is not aided by the current lack of evening economy. There is currently a limited range of evening activity, focused primarily upon pubs and take away facilities. The numbers of pubs within the town have been dwindling over the years which has seen the previously vibrant nightlife within the town decline and little adaptation has taken place to respond to changing tastes and habits. The town has a cinema however it only operates during the weekend at a local private school approximately 1km from the town centre, showing films which have already left the mainstream cinemas. Again this encourages night-time economy to gravitate towards Barnstaple which offers a multi-screen cinema and a theatre. The proximity, lack of contemporary blockbusters and the irregular screenings therefore provide no benefit to the evening economy within the town centre. Our night-time cultural offer is also impacted by having no arts or theatre offer- The Burton at Bideford closes at 4pm and alternative activities are only available in either Barnstaple or Great Torrington. Our proposals would seek to change this and ensure that there is a clear offer for communities and to address issues of boredom for young people which can lead to knock-on anti-social behaviour issues. Anti-social behaviour is widely perceived to be a significant issue within the core town centre. In many cases young people face a lack of productive activities, especially as part of a relevant night-time offer for their demographic.

The average house price in Torridge is £214,647 compared to an average salary of £20,770 meaning houses which become available on the market are unaffordable to the average resident. This can then force many young people, including higher skilled individuals, to leave the district in order to be able to seek appropriately affordable housing to allow them to get on to the housing ladder.

The topography of the town is also seen as a major hindrance in the success of the town centre. The historic Pannier Market resides at the highest point of the town centre and has seen dwindling visitor numbers with the location of the historic venue being blamed. The 9.7% incline to reach the venue is a huge impediment to access for all demographics. Efforts to improve visitor numbers include operating a shuttle bus from the heart of the town centre and increasing publicity within trade magazines. However although there has been a concerted effort to reverse the decline of the Pannier Market, the traders still portray a bleak image of the future of the Pannier Market. The core retail area has shifted away from the section of the Pannier Market during recent years, adding to its decline and growing isolation. There has been a noticeable decline in the quality of retail units and housing stock in the area as a result but without the impetus to adapt their uses or to improve the quality of provision. As part of our remodelling we are working closely with our Planning department to understand recent changes in the government’s planning stance with regards to changes of use within the town centre and to explore how that can support a potential shift in the use of streets which are peripheral to the Primary Shopping Area set out in the North Devon and Torridge Local Plan. As the shift continues we cannot permit zombie-spaces of high vacancy rates and associated decline. This will further support the process of addressing the home-working population of Torridge (19.8%) and supporting our micro business population (estimated at 96% of the district’s workforce).

The town centre regularly hosts a range of events which draw people into the town however these are temporary solutions and the lack of covered areas ensures that many events, such as artisan markets, are not plausible as they are so susceptible to Devon’s weather. Yet those events have a crucial role in connecting people to the town centre and ensuring that they associate themselves with the town. For example, running events organised by Bideford Amateur Athletic Club bring up to 2000 participants plus supporters in to the town centre yet the Pannier Market, the principle covered area, is detached from the core town centre and so broader events to capitalise on the increased footfall cannot currently be organised dependably. There is also currently a lack of flexibility within venues such as the Pannier Market, limiting opportunities to utilise it for entertainment events or as a village hall-style location to provide a gathering point for town events. In many cases the community needs to leave the town centre to utilise hall facilities in neighbouring villages, immediately undermining the connection with our High Street, removing spend and creating a disconnect in how the local population views central Bideford and its role in their lives.

The River Torridge and Bideford’s historic port

At one time Bideford had the third largest operating port in the Great Britain, however now only an average of 4 ships per annum berth to load or unload. The port is currently operating at a significant loss due to the dwindling shipping numbers and although the commercial port is a hugely significant part of Bideford’s heritage and central to the town’s identity, its port status means that limited alternative uses can be made of the prime quayside asset.

The River Torridge is arguably one of the town’s best assets; however it also acts as a hindrance to developments within the town. Schemes have previously been proposed to improve the prospects of the town however the flood risks have caused significant constraints to development. Furthermore, the town’s heritage means that the town centre is composed of numerous listed buildings within the Conservation Area, providing a robust basis for creating an attractive and high quality urban environment. Yet the listed status of numerous buildings within the town centre and the cost of renovating or repurposing these buildings are significant enough to deter landlords from initiating crucial works, allowing decline to creep in in many cases. This is exacerbated by low rental incomes, ensuring a limited level of investment in the building stock. As a result, the wealth of heritage which should be Bideford’s true selling point is undermined by the poor amenity of a significant number of buildings.

Tourism and investment potential

Bideford attracts significantly fewer visitors compared to neighbouring settlements and local out-of-town retail parks. Affinity, an outlet centre on the outskirts of Bideford, provides free car parking and creates a desirable and easy to access offer. The neighbouring and larger retail centre of Barnstaple is easily accessible by car and bus, and also offers the chain stores which many shoppers still look for. In comparison Bideford has traditionally struggled to understand its niche and role within the local ecosystem. As such it has no clear specialisation or distinctive branding in order to distinguish it from other regional centres.

Tourism spend in Bideford, and Torridge overall, is also far lower than in neighbouring areas. For example, according to The Value of Tourism study, 2018 (The South West Research Company Ltd.) the domestic tourism spend in Torridge, £54million in 2017, is significantly lower than in neighbouring North Devon (£231million) whilst the overseas spend was £7million (Torridge) and £20million (North Devon). Even the day visit spend differs significantly- £60.70 compared to £106.50 in North Devon. In many cases Bideford is seen as a toilet stop en route to Cornwall, rather than having a clear USP to attract visitors to enjoy the town’s offer for a more extended period. Although the North Devon and Torridge Local Plan encourages improvements in the quality of tourist accommodation provision, evidence needs to be provided to those providers of the cost-benefits and of the potential for increases in higher-spending tourists, which can only be achieved through a significant improvement in the offer of Bideford’s town centre and connected areas, such as Northam, which includes Westward Ho! and Appledore. 2,102 FTE jobs were connected to the tourism industry in Torridge in 2017, the vast majority of which will be in the Bideford Bay area, incorporating Northam, Westward Ho! and Appledore. All of this reduced spend and lower visit numbers provides a superb opportunity for the town to create increased investment and employment but must be addressed as part of a concerted campaign to deliver our vision. Equally, standards of provision must be improved, which we have begun to address through growing partnerships with tourism training providers such as Petroc and Springboard. Significant intervention is required to encourage inward investment, develop business confidence in the area and inject energy into the local economy.

Infrastructure wise Bideford also faces significant challenges which limit accessibility and usage. The town of Bideford has had no rail links since the line to the nearby town of Barnstaple ceased in 1982. Furthermore the towns nearest motorway, the M5, is 44 miles away with only 6.5 miles of this consisting of dual carriageway. The town is the Principal Area Centre within the district; however even within Torridge there are significant issues of rural transport poverty with immense knock-on wellbeing issues, currently preventing our rural community from being able to access many town centre services. Creativity and innovation is needed in order to inter-connect local communities in order to be able to improve access to Bideford but there is also a reality that the town’s physical location and, to a certain degree inaccessibility, will not change. As such, it should not be a case of complaining but instead exploring what can be done to improve the situation and capitalising on the benefits that our physical geography provides, maximising the potential from our natural assets and unique offer.


Three of Bideford’s nine district wards feature within the Bottom Quartile of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (2015). Five others feature in the Third Quartile. The town suffers from low educational attainment, reflected in recent studies of our District which detailed that only 23.5% of residents between 16-64 have attained a level NVQ4 and above, compared to the South West attainment average of 39% and Great Britain’s of 38.6%. There is therefore a reliance on lower skilled employment sectors within the area of which this is reflected in our employment figures within the manufacturing and retail industries. In March 2019 Appledore shipyard (owned by Babcock Marine) ceases operations, resulting in the loss of highly skilled workers due to relocation and redundancies. The closure will also have an enormous impact on the mindset of the district at the loss of such a key link to our maritime heritage and one of our largest high-skill employers. The lack of equivalent employment within the area is likely to force outward migration of skilled residents to other areas, exacerbating the issue of Bideford and Torridge traditionally being net exporters of their workforce. The increasing employment insecurity and perceived lack of spending power within the town has driven the downward spiral of retail. Yet there is also a strong strand within the community who shop online or travel to Tavistock, Totnes or Exeter (all over an hour away by car, and incredibly difficult to reach by public transport) for experience shopping which is not available in northern Devon. In the case of Tavistock and Totnes this is very much due to the locally sourced and ethical stances of the towns.

There is also a significant lack of belief among the local community that anyone cares about them. Investment in Devon is perceived to focus on Exeter or along the M5 corridor, which brings negligible benefits to life in northern Devon. The loss of Appledore shipyard, due to what the community widely considers to have been bureaucratic inactivity, has only served to heighten this perception.

The Future High Streets Fund capital investment would radically alter this and give genuine belief to the people of Bideford and beyond. It would provide a destination town-centre covered mixed use space to hugely increase opportunities for culture, leisure. The site would link and re-energise four of the town’s five primary streets and create a vibrant space to reconnect a range of demographics with the town from the youth community (providing opportunities for youth entrepreneurialism through, for example the National Market Traders Federation’s Youth Market scheme) through to the retired community looking for an increased daytime offer to ease isolation and resulting wellbeing issues. The mixed use proposition would provide employment but also link perfectly to the growing social prescribing movement in the town, further building the community and reducing social care and medical issues. 

The project would also facilitate the resurgence of high quality markets in our market town. Our final successful market migrated to the far larger Pannier Market in Barnstaple in November, citing the poor location of Bideford’s Pannier Market at the top of a difficult to access hill and the lack of alternative large covered space in the town for the move. As the title of the Institute of Place Management’s 2015 report demonstrates, “Markets Matter”. As the report states as one of its headline findings;

“Markets positively impact on town centres. Markets can generate footfall increases of around 25% for town centres as new research for this project shows. Markets increase retail sales, with significant numbers (55%-71%) of market visitors spending money in other shops (New Economics Foundation, 2005).”

Bideford is a market town with no adequate space for a market yet with a huge volume of local artisans keen to sell their products in the town, be they food and drink or craft-based. When a delegation of local community and retail leaders visited Frome in September 2018 the fact that the Frome Independent market estimates an added footfall of 80,000 visitors spoke volumes for the potential- and the impact that our transformational project could have for the town and wider community.

Town centre vision and ambition for change
Set out your vision for regenerating your high street and how this links with the challenges outlined in section 2.
Please limit your response to 750 words.

Bideford is beautiful, nestled in rolling green hills and with the under-utilised yet stunning River Torridge flowing through its heart. The town needs momentum, but exciting seeds have now begun to emerge. At the heart of all of our plans is a focus on the customer, the community and wellbeing, providing opportunities among deprived demographics, re-positioning how people engage with the town centre and ensuring that the offer is alluring, personalised and dynamic.

The core town centre area has shifted and condensed, yet this has not been capitalised upon for the good of the community or to engage it with the long-term wellbeing of the town. Our transformational plans which the Future High Streets Fund would unlock focus on the core provision of mixed retail, residential, cultural and leisure facilities with a covered open space at the heart of the town. The scheme has received widespread support from businesses and the wider community and addresses a range of challenges.

Yet physical transformation is only one part of the exciting future for Bideford- there needs to be a holistic package in place.

Bideford needs to understand itself and its core demographic to target. We are starting to work with www.maybetech.com to understand the social media noise around the town and Future High Streets funding will allow us to launch a deeper study of town centre engagement and desires. A cross-sector marketing group has been formed to explore what the Bideford brand should be which both of these will feed in to. www.onebideford.org.uk , a collaborative project driven by TDC and BTCP is the first step in increasing this outreach to the community and visitors.

We are keen to maximise the town’s potential attractiveness and connect it to the beauty of surrounding countryside, creating an attractive town centre where people smile and feel engaged with the community and the environment. Bideford has just become the second location in the country to appoint a Postcode Gardener, supported by Friends of the Earth, working with pockets of the community to turn neglected spaces into flourishing edible paradises, creating educational opportunities and immense health and visual benefits. Torridge District Council is also increasing engagement with building owners to raise amenity standards, including through legal routes.

Plans are also afoot to develop QR-accessible Augmented Reality trails to highlight the town’s unique heritage, providing an improved offer for both tourists and residents.

New uses must also be found for under-utilised assets- from public buildings to abandoned units. We are actively pursuing public-private partnerships and developing a “meanwhile” use offer to support community and cultural organisations. an angle with huge potential to support community groups as well as young people and students to de-risk entrepreneurial ventures, thus building aspiration in a low-aspiration, low-skills, deprived economy.

A visit to the town centre should be fun and should make those people feel valued. Art and culture have a huge role to play, with benefits for residents, visitors and even inward migrants given our lifestyle benefits. Plans for the next few months range from community-generated poetry events displayed using hydroponic paint on central retail streets to environmentally-themed artistic exhibitions and the installation of heritage themed sculptures to celebrate the area’s patrimony.

Ease of access must also be addressed. We have become the first district in Devon to install Electric Vehicle rapid-charging points in car parks across the district and our Pay & Display machines are being changed to make parking easier, more flexible and to allow prices to be fluid to support events. We are also beginning to work with Catapult Transport Systems to explore where innovations can be implemented to address the issue of transport deprivation, denying access to the town.

Bideford’s town centre must act as an increasing hub for employment. We are actively pursuing a range of digital-infrastructure and skills projects to support distance-working and industries that are not place dependent. This includes opening previously abandoned rooms in the historic Bideford Town Hall as a flexible hot-desking and networking space. It will serve as a training and networking base to draw in entrepreneurs and micro businesses, whilst impacting on low skill and productivity levels, collaborating with North Devon+, Petroc and the HotSW LEP’s Growth hub.