Diss: Stopping the high street becoming like a ghost town
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
Market towns across the country are facing pressures on the high street and Diss has not escaped online competition, changing shopping trends and rising rents and rates.
Almost half of Diss respondents to the survey by this newspaper mentioned the health of the high street. A third of respondents ranked the issue of closing and empty shops on the high street as 10 out of 10 — the maximum level of concern.
The Diss Heritage Triangle project has helped to breathe fresh life into part of the town, creating a vibrant mix of independent shops and traders, but traders further down the hill on Mere Street have faced tough conditions. Birgitte Mager, owner of family-run book and gift shop Diss Publishing Company, said: 'The thing about the Heritage Triangle project is that all the money has gone to the top of the town which means that down here we are a very different ball park.
'However it would be easy to put a negative spin on things however I think if we could get the town council to work with the businesses in the town then Diss has a tremendous amount to offer. It has so much going for it with the Mere. But there is a lack of understanding, which is actually a national problem, because businesses like ours pay a lot of rates but we don't get any direct say for the money that we pay.'
Sue Kiddie, owner of women's clothing and accessories shop Tatters of Diss, said: 'The footfall is dramatically down this year. There is also now an obsession with a bargain, which I call the Primark effect. That doesn't put off the loyal customers who have been coming to us for years, but it probably does stop others.'
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Carl Edwards, who has owned hardware store Larter & Ford for six years, though there has been a shop at the location on Market Hill since 1832, said customer loyalty had helped Diss.
'I think on the whole businesses are holding up quite well in Diss in comparison to what you hear about other high streets,' he said. 'We have a pretty loyal following of customers who will come to us as a business.'
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Ms Mager said the town could not rest on its laurels. 'There are actually a lot of empty shops now when there weren't until recently,' she said. 'We need to get back to really focussing on the issues of the whole of the high street.'
Is car parking driving people out of the town?
The issue of car parking is a persistent complaint in many small towns and it was highlighted by respondents to our survey in Diss.
The number of spaces and the cost for both those visiting and those working and owning businesses in the town featured among bugbears and things that could be improved.
A petition launched by Diss shopkeepers fed up of town centre parking woes gained hundreds of signatures and the names of more than a dozen town centre businesses.
Alison Ellis, who works at Copydiss in Shelfhanger Road, set up it up to call for theWeavers Court car park to be open for long stays
She said: 'A lot of people, like the hairdressers, have customers that go in and need longer than four hours and they can't suddenly jump out of a chair and go and move their car.'
Birgitte Mager, of Diss Publishing Company, said: 'Parking is a huge issue but it is a testament to the success of the town. Where in the past some car parks didn't have a high occupancy rate now at peak times can't cope.'
Prospective Diss district councillor Graham Minshull said Diss has over 1,000 parking spaces which is more than any other market town in South Norfolk. It has also got over half of the car parks that the district council own.
'So it is well provisioned but we do have discussions all the time about the issue,' he said. 'People often say why can't it be free but it is not free. If you don't pay for it at point of use you will pay for it in the council tax.
'The car parks just break even, they don't make a profit, and because in the last couple of years the council have put new machines in they have actually made an operating loss.'
Controversial development of green space at heart of Diss
It is one of the most controversial developments facing Diss the plan to build on a historic green space at the heart of the town.
Scott Residential has proposed 24 retirement bungalows on currently private and undeveloped land in Diss Lawns, also known as Parish Fields, between Shelfanger Road and Mount Street.
The plans have proved divisive with an opposition campaign being launched and standing room only at a meeting where the house builder outlined their vision for the land.
This was reflected in respondents to our Diss survey who expressed their sadness that the area, listed in the South Norfolk Local Plan as an important local open space, could be lost.
Sara Knight said: 'I am against the development of this historic site. It would be a real shame to lose this green area from the town. I am also concerned that there is insufficient thought being given to the infrastructure of the town if more and more homes are planned.'
Hazel Massey said: 'Green spaces are difficult to find. They should be valued as they contribute to the environment and eco structure. I oppose the development.'
Another respondent called Paul said: 'Community open green spaces should not be so easily built on. Shouldn't it be safe guarded as a central town green space? Other places are better suited for building.'