Article for Wokingham Times

This week I am writing to the company set up to develop Wokingham’s town centre. There is plenty of good will behind the idea that Wokingham needs a facelift. The town has attractive buildings around the Market Place, and it serves a well populated area. Today it does need some new retailers and some new or refurbished shops in some locations. There is little disagreement about the general aims – to create a vibrant, attractive and flourishing town centre with more retailers and better shops. There is also little disagreement that the town needs to have stores for the main larger multiples. It could do with one or two new names, and maybe larger stores for some already here.

Taxpayers now have an important aim – to get their money back now they are standing behind the project and own some of the real estate. Existing traders would like reassurance that they have a future too in the new Wokingham, and that there will be suitable sized shops with rents and rates they can afford. This is where Wokingham’s development company will have to show some skill in reconciling the differing interests.

An answer is to set rents for the new shops that are low to attract a wide range of new and existing retailers, but to include a turnover linked element to the rent. That way successful national retail chains pay a good rent based on their higher turnovers, whilst smaller local businesses pay less if their turnovers remain low. If the rents are set at a basic low level, the landlord might wish to include a break clause for him to operate to terminate the tenancy, if the tenant has failed to meet agreed  modest targets for turnover over a realistic period like three years.

It is then in both the landlord and the tenants interest to work to get footfall in the town higher, and for them both to attract more purchasers to the shops. The developer/landlord has a continuing interest in promoting the town and in highlighting its attractions to shoppers.

It is most important that the development company sees the current traders in Wokingham as part of the solution to their plans for a bigger and more commercial town centre. It should be easier to keep the retailers we already have, than to attract new ones. There need to be flexible approaches to rent, so small retailers can make a start and see trade build up as the centre develops. It is also the case that we need to charge decent rent for the larger and more successful, so the taxpayer has a chance of getting their money back. Rents generally outside London are under downwards pressure. It is a very competitive retail world at the moment. That’s why Wokingham needs to show some flair and some understanding.