Could art be the answer to saving Britain’s struggling High Streets?

Towns are being urged to embrace outdoor art as a way of saving Britain’s dying High Streets and increasing footfall in struggling towns.

Despite positive steps, footfall in UK town centres is still well below pre-pandemic levels, as many shoppers turn to the convenience of online shopping with nearly 50 stores a day closing on High Streets across the UK in the last year.

A unique project now believes they have the answer after their first successful heritage art trail saw thousands of new visitors flock to a Midlands town, increasing footfall and additional spend.

Making Trails, based in Burton on Trent in Staffordshire, is the only project of its kind in the UK to offer bespoke designed art sculptures out of recycled plastic.

Launching the Big Burton Carousel in the summer they are calling on towns across the country to think differently to revitalise struggling town centres and encourage shoppers back.

In line with the Government report Supporting our High Street after Covid-19, Tilley Bancroft, who runs the project, says it is important councils encourage events and interaction within public spaces if we are to stop more shops closing leaving empty units up and down our High Streets.

“Town centres have suffered terribly because of COVID driving people away as they find alternative ways to shop,” says Tilley. “If we are to break that cycle we need to do something different to entice and encourage people back.”

The House of Commons report Supporting our High Street after Covid-19 urges councils to look at new ways of bringing people to struggling towns which are “based primarily on social interactions rather than financial transactions”.

The idea of outdoor art sculptures to raise funds for local charities and support economic growth is relatively new although it is now gaining momentum. Making Trails, which started in 2019, is one of only two companies in the UK currently offering charity art trails and the only one to create custom made recycled plastic designs that are specifically designed to get people talking about a particular area.

The first trail – Burton Swans – which was held at the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020 increased footfall by over 10,000 people in the town during the 10-week period and brought in an additional £40,000 for local businesses.

Each trail is specifically themed to the area and eco-friendly bespoke art structure are placed at key locations to help drive footfall across the town and encourage engagement.

Chloe Brown, Brewhouse Arts Centre Manager from East Staffordshire Borough Council said: “The difference the art trail made to the town was amazing. Covid 19 has brought many challenges with unfortunately many still remaining even though shops have reopened.  Getting people back into town centres is going to take a different approach and we have seen first-hand how art trails can create a sense of pride within communities.”

With interactive QR codes and a special app to help provide information each trail is themed around the area to help inspire a sense of civic pride and community with sculptures auctioned off at the end to raise money for local charities.

Tilley Bancroft said: “Community art has always been important in creating a sense of pride and inclusion in UK towns. However, now more than ever it is needed to reinvigorate our town centres and increase that sense of civic pride. Shops alone won’t bring people back there is a need to create a buzz and get people talking about towns again.

“Art is perfect for doing this. By bringing sculptures onto the streets and out of art galleries it is changing the way people interact and think about art.”

According to the British Retail Consortium footfall on High Streets declined by 24.2% in January 2022 compared with pre-pandemic figures.

It comes after the UK lost 83% of its main department stores in the last 5 years with two-thirds of these stores still left unoccupied.

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