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Marlborough is a pretty, busy, wealthy, expensive town with pricey car parks, new report finds

A snapshot of the health of Marlborough High Street has been described by the report’s author as the most positive he has seen all year.

The £2,500 benchmarking exercise, conducted by Mike King of consultants People and Places, looked at various aspects of business in Marlborough – from the point of view of shoppers and traders – and compared the findings to similarly-sized market towns across the UK.

The 57-page report, which was made public on Monday after being presented to Marlborough town councillors, by whom the report was commissioned, paints a favourable picture.

It noted that Marlborough enjoyed a low vacancy rate (the measure of empty shops) of just six percent, compared to a regional average of seven percent and a national average, for towns like Marlborough, of eight percent. The national average generally stands at around 14 percent.

High Street, found the report, is busy – and at its busiest on market days, when 215 people pass a given spot every ten minutes, compared to 153 on non-market days. This is well up on the national small towns average of 122 people per ten minutes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the front entrance of Waitrose is the busiest part of High Street. There, footfall averaging 225 people every ten minutes was recorded.

Car parking vacancy rates were found to be very low – which is both a blessing and a curse. On market days, 13 percent of car parking spaces in the town were available, noticeably lower than the national (28 percent) and regional (30 percent) average.

On non-market days the rate nearly doubled to 23 percent – still considerably lower than the 36 percent national average.

The report found that 35 percent of shoppers questioned spent an average of £30 to £50 on a single visit to Marlborough – vastly higher than the national (20 percent) or regional (18 percent) level of spend.

And overwhelmingly, town centre users rated the physical appearance of Marlborough as attractive – 89 percent compared to the national small towns average of 33 percent.

Perhaps this was why Marlborough attracts shoppers from far and wide. During the survey, 48 percent of town centre users were residents of the Marlborough area. Twenty eight percent came from within a 30-minute drive-time, and 25 percent had travelled for more than 30 minutes to reach the town. Ninety three percent of town centre users recommended a visit to Marlborough.

However, the town has fewer independent shops to offer visitors – just over half of the shops in the defined two centre are independent, compared to 68 percent of small towns nationally and 73 percent regionally. It does suggest, however, confidence on behalf of national chains of the viability of Marlborough as a trading point.

And generally, business owners are feeling more confident, too. Forty four percent said their business turnover had increased over the past 12 months, six percent higher than the national average.

When it came to gripes, car parking and affordability topped the list – both from the shoppers’ and traders’ points of view.

The report notes “a range of town centre users comments concerning ‘improving the retail offer’ concentrated on the provision of more affordable shops,” while “fifty-six percent of businesses rated rental values and rates as a negative aspect of doing business.”

It went on: “A range of town centre user comments centred on the need for the introduction of free / cheaper car parking, and 71 percent of users rated car parking as a negative aspect of Marlborough, nearly double the national small towns average.

“Car parking was classed as the most negative aspect of operating a business in Marlborough by business owners (72 percent).”

The report will now be used by the Town Team – a group made up of town councillors and members of the Chamber of Commerce – as the first step to creating a Business Improvement District.

The BID scheme collects an extra levy from business owners of, typically, three to five percent of the business rates. But rather than going into the Government’s melting pot, the cash is returned to the town to fund initiatives like Christmas lights, better signage, and maybe even cheaper car parking.

The findings of the report could also be used as ammunition in Wiltshire Council’s extensive car parking public consultation, which closes in January.