Jim Parker: Going back to the future may just be what Torquay needs ...

Picture of owner outside harbour shop

Harbourside trader Steve - Credit: Submitted

Don’t you get the feeling that sometimes the world and life goes around in circles and you end up back where you began?  

I can remember a time long ago when Torquay was busy and buzzing.  

A time when there seemed to be a pub - and I mean a good old-fashioned pub - on every street corner and down every back alley of the town. 

A time when we had three cinemas, hotels with vibrant bars, bikers at the Marine Tavern, summer season shows at the Princess Theatre, a sea of deck chairs on Torre Abbey Beach where you couldn't see the sand for people and the fair going out around the inner harbour. 

A time of the old Fleet Street, once dotted with a variety of independent shops. You can't halt, and nobody should stand in the way of progress and times have changed,.

But when the shops and pubs were demolished and the big boys moved in to create a new Fleet Street and shopping mall, Torquay lost a bit of its heart, a bit of its soul, a chunk of its charm. 

Now, after many years look what is happening in our high street.

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The big names are being demolished, crucified by high rents and rates and the way people shop with the lure of the out-of-town supermarkets and free parking and the on-line checkouts becoming more and more popular. 

Debenhams are the latest to go leaving a gaping hole on Torquay harbourside - a hole already too big after the previous withdrawal of the Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Boots. 

Ironically, the shops remaining are independents, including Maggies, Hoopers and Jane's. They seemed to have so far survived all the change and, fingers crossed, the pandemic and lockdown. 

Steve Thorne, who owns and runs the Jane's dress shop, is quite upbeat. 

It is It is the third Lockdown since last March for Steve who took over the shop, which has been there for more than 20 years, in 2014.

He says: "We are in a really strong position. We were in a strong position before lockdown. 

"It would be fair to mention the financial support/ grants from the Government and council which has been so important, and I have had great support from my business banking manager and am continuing to do so." 

But, like many other businesses Jane’s and Steve had to adapt and do some things differently.

He says: “Normally we would forward order products for spring, summer and winter. Now we do less forward ordering and more buying in according to the market."

It is not only his business which is changing but the English Riviera as well. 

He says: "Torbay is changing as a holiday resort. We are going to be less of a seven or 14-day resort and more of a staycation resort.   

“That can make things very unpredictable because people will book very late on a Thursday or Friday depending on the weather."

That means what is on offer in the high street has to change - people want a shopping experience. 

The recent £22 million in Town Deal funding for the town centre will help immensely. Regeneration projects and improvement schemes will change the face and shape of the high street centre and will attract millions more in private investment. 

Steve says: “Before the pandemic there were plans to improve the Strand area, upgrade the street furniture and widen the pavements to improve the ambience.  

“Now it feels as if everything has come at once. I think that there could be a real regeneration for that area if the council speed up the whole process and deliver the projects in the pipeline. 

“If this was Cannes or Monte Carlo it would be treated as a prime spot opposite the harbour or marina. This IS a prime spot and has to be developed quickly.” 

He hopes Torbay Council, who own the Debehams building, have some ‘dynamic’ plans up their sleeve.  

He talks of the strengths of the surviving  independent retailers. 

“People still like customer service. It is also about finding something that is difficult to find or you cannot find online,” he says.  

“It just proves the fact that a shopping experience is also about being in a lovely area.” 

Steve reckons the empty harbour buildings could be regenerated with independent units and apartments above.  

“A line of independents with a bit of quality thrown in – a mix of shops and apartments. The Strand would have a variety of shops with apartments above, parking from the Terrace and a continental café style feel and culture.” 

Independent shops at the bottom half of the town. Talk about going full circle!