High streets across Wealden market towns and villages are bucking national trends and recovering well from the pandemic, say local experts.

With larger towns and cities continuing to struggle with reduced footfall and empty premises, Wealden’s smaller market towns and villages such as Uckfield, Heathfield and Mayfield have benefited from the strong support of their residents, aided by the free car parking provided by Wealden District Council.

Whilst the structural impacts of online shopping and COVID lockdowns have been well documented, the need for social distancing, the preference for outdoor living and more people working from home have all led to a resurgence of people visiting their local high streets.

Recent research on shop vacancies in East Sussex shows levels were higher in 2015 than they are now in spite of the lockdowns, said Chris Lawson of Lawson Commercial.

“Smaller towns such as Uckfield, Wadhurst and Mayfield are faring better than their larger neighbours such as Tunbridge Wells and Brighton,” he said.

High Street Task Force expert Joanne Rogers, who is working closely with Wealden District Council to deliver the ‘Shop & Dine Well in Wealden’ campaign, believes the resilience comes from having more independent retailers and hospitality outlets and fewer national chains.

“Historically, the lack of large retail units has kept high street chains away from our high streets. Whilst once seen as a problem, now it is an advantage,” she said.

Chris Lawson agreed.  “In most small towns, shops are probably somewhere between 400 and 800 square feet. That’s one reason why you don’t see the big names as they need 1,000 to 2,000 sq. ft.” he said.

“And there is high demand for units as they become available. For example, in Crowborough, we have four vacant units on our books, and all are under offer.”

Another factor is that whilst many independent retailers do not have online stores, Wealden high street businesses are using social media and online community groups to connect with customers.

Uckfield has the highest rate of businesses actively using social media at 52%, closely followed by Crowborough and Hailsham at 46%. These businesses are also taking advantage of local news sites which offer low-cost advertising opportunities.

Joanne said people now recognise the benefits of staying local.  “It is easier to avoid the crowds and potential COVID infections in smaller market towns where retailers, restaurants and cafes have all taken steps to keep their customers safe including social distancing measures and alfresco dining spaces,” she said.

“There’s the convenience factor too. As well as the free parking, independents offer fantastic customer service, and you can avoid the stress associated with delivery delays.  Shopping locally means we can all do our bit to combat climate change too.  Not only does it help to reduce our carbon footprint, but we consume far less packaging by shopping in the high street than by parcel deliveries.”

Wealden District Council leader Bob Standley said, “There is much to gain from us all using our local high streets.  It boosts our local economy, supports independent businesses and provides local jobs. It also gives our towns and villages a community hub, which is so important for our wellbeing. I would urge everyone to do their Christmas shopping locally this year and support Wealden’s high streets.  Let’s all shop mindfully and buy local!”