Levelling up: how UK towns and cities are putting collaboration at the heart of regeneration

With the release of the UK Government’s Levelling Up plan, including a £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund to revive high streets, two UK towns and cities hav

With the release of the UK Government’s Levelling Up plan, including a £2.6bn UK Shared Prosperity Fund to revive high streets, two UK towns and cities have revealed how they are putting collaboration at the forefront of their strategies for recovery and regeneration.

Sunderland and East Ayrshire are two regions already on the path to reviving their high streets, supporting local businesses through collaboration and the use of complementary technology solutions.

In Sunderland, data from the Financial Times revealed that local sales since March 2020 were up 2.8%. 39.4% of in person spend came from people living within a 2 mile radius and spend by this group increased 15.1% on pre-pandemic levels. In East Ayrshire, local sales since March 2020 were up 5.7% on what might have been expected on pre-pandemic levels, with grocery sales up by 119.9%.

“Sunderland has a strong history of organisations working together, which puts us in a real position of strength when it comes to promoting the city centre and everything it has to offer,” said Sharon Appleby is the Chief Executive of Sunderland BID:

“The BID set up the task force recovery group at the height of the pandemic with representatives from many organisations and sectors to come up with a strategy to help drive and support business – this wouldn’t have been possible if those strong relationships didn’t already exist.

“We work with local traders’ organisations, the local authority and the city’s business group to name but a few, so the result is a really joined-up approach. That approach now extends to the platforms that we have to help boost the local economy, from our highly successful Sunderland Gift Card scheme to ShopAppy, which again work together to give the high street other outlets for promoting their offering – this in turn benefits the whole city.”

The Sunderland Gift Card is part of the Town & City Gift Cards concept, local gift cards that can be spent across retail, leisure, hospitality and services, branded to a particular town or city, helping to keep money locked into the area, founded in 2015 by fintech Miconex. ShopAppy is a digital marketplace for local independent shops and businesses to show information, products and services for sale in a town or city, launched by Jackie Mulligan in 2016.

One of the businesses in Sunderland that has benefited from this joined up approach is Port Independent in Sunderland.

“Post lockdown one, we saw a big increase in customers wanting to shop local. We’re past the fearful stage of the pandemic, when people avoided mass supermarkets. Convenience is back and it’s down to us to adapt for the future of our high street,” said Gerard Purvis, Director at Port Independent in Sunderland. “Our end of Sunderland has seen lots of regeneration as part of the drive to make the city a destination for people to live, work and play.

“I’ve worked in retail since I was 16 and it has changed so much. It used to be that you had to have 15 staff in Topshop on a Saturday to cope with the demand, but now, people just want to shop in the easiest way they can. They don’t just visit one shop to do one thing anymore, which is why diversification within our businesses and collaboration with schemes like the Sunderland Gift Card are so important to the evolution of our cities.

“The Sunderland Gift Card aligns with the idea of supporting local but it’s modern and convenient too. Customers can use their gift card on a coffee in January in person when they wouldn’t normally have as much cash in their pockets, or they can use it to buy clothes on our website. It gives customers a reason to shop local and works for how they want to shop, with ease and accessibility, which is vital. The good thing about the Sunderland Gift Card is that it’s really visible in the city, the BID promotes it, and people know what it is.”

In Scotland, collaboration is also key. The Scottish Government pledged its support for Scottish businesses by backing the rollout of a Scotland Loves Local Gift Card for each of Scotland’s 32 local authority regions in 2021, driven by Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) and Miconex. The Financial Times credited East Lothian, home of the East Lothian Gift Card, with a 12% rise in in person spending since the pandemic- the highest across the whole of the UK.

East Ayrshire introduced the East Ayrshire Gift Card and ShopAppy in 2020. Over £250,000 of East Ayrshire Gift Cards were sold in 2021, making it one of the most successful local gift cards in the UK.

“The high street has changed. People need to buy into the services you’ve offering and for that to happen, they have to be useful to them and we all have to work together; the council, business association and the businesses themselves,” said Tracy Murray, Town Centre Regeneration Officer at East Ayrshire Council.

For us, our local gift card and ShopAppy go hand in hand, it was about facilitating the trend for online shopping, but keeping the benefit local. We applied for funding with Scotland’s Towns Partnership to launch a digital high street using ShopAppy, businesses can sign up and sell their products on their online marketplace. Customers who were maybe not ready to visit shops in person were able to use their East Ayrshire Gift Card for click and collect or online home delivery. Others would look on ShopAppy before a visit into town.”

Peter Telfer, managing director at Urquhart Opticians and chair of the Kilmarnock Business Association said collaboration can help places to access funding:

“On our own, Kilmarnock Business Association wouldn’t have had the funds to launch the East Ayrshire Gift Card or ShopAppy. A shared vision to improve the high street, and collaboration with Cumnock Business Association and East Ayrshire Council allowed us to get the funding we needed.

“Collaboration avoids duplication. Without it, good work may be done with good intentions but when we work together it allows us to cut through with a stronger message. If we say the same things, in the same way- such as the need to shop local- then it is far more likely to resonate with the end user than if we are all working to our own agenda. It also means that everyone is incentivised to make the project successful.

“The pandemic has been a great leveller in East Ayrshire. Different organisations had to come together and were highly motivated to make it work. It’s not a case of businesses on one side, and the council on the other, we are all on the same team.

“With a positive team, and applying the local lens to all projects, we’ve been able to come up with ideas such as using the East Ayrshire Gift Card in Christmas boxes for families in need, which have been truly beneficial to the whole community.”

Café da Vinci in Kilmarnock makes use of both the East Ayrshire Gift Card and ShopAppy.

“We do have lots of people using the East Ayrshire Gift Cards in our venue,” said Ashley, Manager of Café da Vinci. “The gift card encourages people to try us out and the brilliant thing is that it can be used in so many shops, bars and restaurants across the area, so people don’t have worries about buying a gift voucher for one specific place.

“In East Ayrshire, we also have ShopAppy. This was a brilliant tool during lockdown. It is also fantastic for shopping locally as people can buy products from a variety of local shops online and either click and collect or choose a delivery option. It’s a good way for businesses like ours that don’t really sell online, to venture into that area. It’s really positive that we have initiatives like the East Ayrshire Gift Card and ShopAppy in Kilmarnock, which are driven by East Ayrshire Council. I’m also a member of the Kilmarnock Business Association, and there’s a real sense of everyone working together, the council, the business association and the businesses themselves. By working together, we are far more successful.”

“With the Levelling Up plan announced, there will be funding for towns and cities to recover and regenerate but places need holistic solutions that offer longevity and the ability to future proof high streets,” said Jackie Mulligan, founder and CEO of ShopAppy.

“We’re approaching a new wave of partnership thinking. Collaboration builds the community, it makes inherent sense yet what often happens is that you have two businesses at each end of the high street that don’t even know one another. The message needs to be that your competitor isn’t the business down the road but the online giants, stripping the heart out of the high street. By working together with other businesses in the area, driven by the local authority and business organisations and groups, towns and cities are able to both grow and regenerate.

Colin Munro, managing director of Miconex said the onus is also on technology providers to work together:

“A December 2021 Data and Marketing Association survey found that 58% of people try to shop locally as much as possible. 36% shop locally to support the local economy yet only 21% shop locally because they believe it is more convenient. It’s down to us to blend the desire to shop local with convenience, helping to build sustainable consumer shopping habits. The idea of collaboration extends to us as technology providers too, creating solutions that provide a tangible return but also work in a complementary way, such as how Town & City Gift Cards work alongside ShopAppy.”

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