Is it a blossoming and vibrant place, full of ambition and entrepreneurship? Or is it one of the worst high streets in the UK, as reported in many national newspapers last week?
With police attending alleged crimes three times a day there, and drugs, violence and prostitution claimed to be rife , things don’t look good for Swansea’s High Street.
But Russell Greenslade, chief executive of the Swansea Business Improvement District, has hit back at critics, claiming they had ignored “some of the most impressive entrepreneurs and business men and women operating within Swansea city centre”.
And chief superintendent Martin Jones , of South Wales Police, said this week there is a ‘lot of really good news in terms of the economic regeneration of the area’.
He also admitted, however, that there were also ‘real issues there which we have to face’, following the launch of the force’s Operation Jaeger which will see sex workers who refuse offers of support being prosecuted , along with those who visit the area to exploit those selling sex.
High Street does boast plenty of new businesses, and is a centre for the arts with a theatre company and galleries located there.
But there are also crumbling buildings and boarded up shop fronts, and it is certainly a shadow of its former self from when it was once the retail heart of the city.
Much of the street and buildings nearby have fallen into a period of long decline. Efforts have and are being made to improve its lot, but it has struggled to re-establish itself, despite being the ‘gateway’ to the city centre from the train station.
Only in March, 2019, Dai Lloyd, Plaid AM, said: “As the key gateway for visitors to the city, Swansea needs to up its game. First impressions count, and the current condition of the High Street is a sad reflection on the city.”
And there was also criticism of the multi-storey car park in Swansea from Plaid AM Bethan Sayed who labelled it disgusting .
So are the woes of High treet just an image problem? Or are there much deeper problems that need to be solved? Listed below are some of the key problems which come up time and time again.
1. Dealing with the sex worker issue
This has to be near the top of the priority list, and is clearly being taken very seriously by South Wales Police.
The problem of sex workers plying their trade in the area, and their clients roaming the streets looking to exploit them is a major issue, and is no doubt making many steer clear of the area.
Wales Online carried out a major investigation into the issue in 2017, but it has not gone away.
The police’s Operation Jaeger, mentioned above, is the latest attempt to tackle the problem head on.
As well as prosecuting those who refuse offers of help, police will also be using dispersal orders to stop offenders from returning to the area.
City centre chief inspector Geraint White said previously: “Residents, business owners and visitors to Swansea have a right to be able to go about their lives without feeling intimidated or harassed by sex workers, those controlling them or kerb-crawlers, and without witnessing the associated criminality and antisocial behaviour which so often goes hand-in-hand with sex work.
“Ideally we want to help those who have found themselves – for whatever reason – involved in sex work.
“But I want to be crystal clear – first and foremost we are police officers and we will take robust action against those breaking the law.”
2. More investment is needed
There’s no getting around the fact that any regeneration project needs money, and lots of it.
But at times of restricted budgets, finding the cash is not easy.
Coastal Housing, a not-for-profit social housing organisation, saw the potential for fixing High Street by attracting creative industries.
So far, the organisation has pumped £25m into the ‘Urban Village’ scheme by snapping up empty buildings, and creating flats and office, retail and creative space in their stead.
At the time, Gareth Davies, director of development at Coastal, said: “We bought our first parcel of land around here in 1998. We are now starting to see the benefits of the work that began 20 years ago, and that’s how long regeneration takes.”
Swansea High Street needs more organisations like Coastal Housing to plough long-term investment into it.
A spokesman for Swansea Council said: “Further investment of more than £110m is taking place thanks at two major student accommodation projects that are being built, as well as Coastal Housing’s exciting plans for phase three of its Urban Village which was announced last week. These developments will increase the number of people living there by more than 1,000, further increasing footfall to support existing businesses and encourage new ones.
“Swansea Council has helped to provide grants to other businesses to enhance or bring back into use key buildings on High Street and the surrounding area. These include improvements to the Grand Hotel opposite the station, the rescue of the derelict building at 71 High Street as well as new leisure and retail businesses on The Strand and Castle Street.”
3. More support for businesses
You only have to walk up High Street to see it is struggling.
In 2018, the rate of empty stores was 17%, a good 6% above the national average.
With cost pressures from steep rents, rising business rates, and hikes to the national living wage all eroding margins, it doesn’t look like this will change any time soon.
More landlords need to follow Coastal Housing’s example. Its plan was simple: offer attractive rents to creative businesses and hope they will attract other, similar ventures.
It worked. Elysium Gallery and Studios and Volcano Theatre were two of the first of this new breed to find a home in High Street.
A good starting point could be a focus on business rates. Set by the Welsh Government, there is already rate relief to some small businesses.
Since April, 2018, the Welsh Government has allocated £100m to support businesses with a rateable value up to £12,000.
From April, 2019, there is additional rate relief for businesses which will be allocated by the local authority.
This relief has already been applied to all eligible businesses in Swansea, but can more be done to take into account the unique circumstances facing retailers in High Street?
A reprieve from business rate charges could go a long way to reviving the street’s fortunes.
4. Making it a more attractive place to be
Improving the general environment to make the area a nicer place to inhabit might encourage people to stick around a little longer and not rush past quite so fast as they head towards the city centre.
In 2011, art was the catalyst for regeneration of High Street. In 2017, new awnings were the latest idea to help restore the street to it’s former glory . Things seemed to be on the up back then – galleries, theatres, shops and cafes were transforming the ‘hip’ high street into a ‘cultural hidden gem’ .
Yet in 2019, one business shut up shop, having operated for less than a year, saying the area had been abandoned to crime .
Six years ago, a report to Swansea Council and the Welsh Government said people viewed Swansea “as tired, dated and declining with an average offer coupled with a complex traffic system, congestion and poor /expensive car parking”.
Academic studies have shown shoppers on foot can spend up to six times more than those who arrive by car. Making the pavements and streets safer and more inviting to pedestrians could benefit businesses, residents and developers alike.
Data on streets where the pedestrian experience has been improved shows footfall increasing by 20-35%, and when streets are regenerated to boost walking, there is a corresponding impact on turnover, property values and rental yields.
Swansea Council does try to support events to encourage shoppers to the High Street. A spokesman said: “The Council works in partnership with many of the High Street businesses, and property partners such as Coastal Housing, to help support, develop and coordinate events, promotional activities and festivals such as the Swansea Fringe, joint exhibition openings, live theatre and music.”
5. The much-needed restoration of the Palace Theatre
It’s an iconic building, yet Swansea’s Palace Theatre, built in 1888 and now owned by a private London-based company, has deteriorated so badly part of the road next to it in High Street has been cordoned off to the public because of the potential danger of falling masonry.
As a privately-owned building, there is little that can be done.
Yet another historic ruined house in Swansea, Danbert House, was sold at auction for £100,000 , after the council forced the Australian-based owners to pass it on to recoup maintenance costs.
There is much potential for the former theatre to be restored to its former glory and make it a focal point, drawing people up the high street.
6. Rejuvenating The Elysium
The Elysium was opened as a cinema in 1914 and operated until 1960 when High Street saw a lot of its old businesses move to the newly built city centre.
It was converted into a bingo hall until it finally closed in the mid 1990s.
Today, it is an eyesore on the high street, and is in such a bad state inside, it is under constant threat of demolition.
It’s another sad reminder for visitors of how parts of High Street have been ‘forgotten’.
7. Making it the ‘gateway’ to the city
With the train station at the top of the street, a major transport hub, the high street is a critical gateway to the city.
Yet when you emerge from the station, the view of a busy, congested and derelict street is far from welcoming.
And there is the criticism of the High Street car park by a visiting politician, who subsequently said “something has got to change”. Swansea Council has since confirmed it is working on refurbishments to the multi-story car park.
High Street needs to be reestablished as the link between the station and the city centre.
In March 2019, Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales West, said: “The High Street in Swansea is a key gateway to the city for visitors as they arrive by train at Swansea station…
“However, despite some investment, we are still faced with a row of deserted, crumbling old buildings in the area. Among them we have the historical Palace Theatre still dominating the area. The building has been empty for a number of years, and is falling into disrepair.
“It simply does not give a good impression of the city, and the issue needs to be tackled.”
While it can be argued private investment is slowly following the housing, art and digital sectors which led the regeneration in 2011, change is coming very slowly for High Street.
It is hoped the new 700-flat student tower on the high street will bring further footfall to the street and help create a new gateway to the city centre.
8. Making sure the student influx is an asset, not a problem
Many in Swansea are critical about the scale of student development currently happening throughout the city.
Yet should residents and businesses alike view these projects as an opportunity?
For some, confidence in the future of High Street is dependent on the arrival of more people, and the student pound could be vital to the area’s continuing regeneration.
The new student accommodation building opposite Swansea train station will transform the uninspiring view from Swansea rail station once it opens at the start of the 2021 academic year.
Swansea Council leader, Councillor Rob Stewart, said: “We recognise High Street’s role as a key gateway in and out of the city centre, so this scheme is vitally important as part of our plans to transform the city centre’s retail, leisure and recreational offer by significantly increasing the number of people who live and work there.”
More businesses and entrepreneurs perhaps need to follow the example of Ben Miles, who owns the Culture fashion store in Swansea High Street, with his brother Matthew Read.
Speaking in 2018, Mr Miles said: “We opened Culture three months ago and we chose Swansea High Street specifically because of the nearby student village development. Things are going well for us here. We took part in the Student Shopping Event, by setting up a pop-up shop near The Quadrant, and we had a very good day of trading.
“We find that students have disposable income, they want to look good, so their custom is good for fashion outlets, for other retailers, for Swansea’s cafes and food places, as well as the night time businesses. Bringing young people into the city centre to live, shop and socialise can only be a good thing.”
Simply waiting for the students to come in their droves could be a solution to some of the woes of High Street.
9. Capturing the spirit of the past
If the street could talk, it would recount how, over the years, Swansea High Street has faced numerous challenges since its heyday: heavy bombing during World War Two, significant rebuilding after the war, the decline of the once-booming traditional industries and the more recent UK-wide recession in the 1990s and 2000s.
The pictures of High Street today are certainly a far cry from those in the early 1900s and hide a rich history stretching from music halls and Wales’s first cinema, to Wales’s first gay club and live music pubs .
In the seventies, High Street in Swansea was awash with shoppers. But with the main retail area shifting to the west and the rise of out of city retail centres and enterprise zones, it soon became a place people no longer wanted to visit.
Coupled with a fairly uninspiring streetscape, it soon spiralled into an unwelcoming environment as once prosperous pubs closed, older buildings became dilapidated, and anti-social behaviour became prevalent.
There are now the green shoots of a potential recovery clearly visible, which could be accelerated by developments on the way.
But there are still many problems to be solved before High Street can hold its head high once more.