Public Services: The centre of attention: Paul Gosling reports on efforts by authorities and the private sector to reverse the trend of local traders losing business to out-of-town shopping precincts

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John Gummer's announcement that the Department of the Environment is to look less favourably on out-of-town shopping developments comes too late for many town and city centres already in serious trouble. Some towns are deserted, with shops lying empty, and those remaining losing money.

'The out-of-town market is now about 24 per cent of total retail sales, compared with 4 or 5 per cent in the early 1980s,' says Vince Prior, a partner in surveyors Jones Lang Wootton. 'Market share has dropped from 60 per cent to 50 per cent in the town and city centres. The most marked impact has been from Merry Hill, particularly on Dudley. More than half the town's trade has been lost.'

Local authorities have a key role in preserving traditional town centres. In Nottingham - threatened in the north by Sheffield's Meadowhall, and in the south by Leicester's Fosse Park - the district and county councils are forming a city centre steering group working with the private sector.

The private sector has put money and staff into initiatives like this - in Nottingham a business plan for the city was drawn up free of charge by accountants KPMG.

Shoppers are now met at Nottingham's bus and rail stations and car parks by customer reception points. 'That's when you decide whether you will come back - in those first few minutes when you arrive,' says Martin Garratt, the city centre manager. Visitors can use A-Z shopping guides, containing details of 800 shops in the city. Shoppers can join a 'shopmobility' scheme, enabling them to borrow wheelchairs and buggies without charge.

The environment has been carefully considered. A city centre ranger is employed, who starts work at 8am and removes the flyposters, litter and graffiti that appear overnight. 'It has proved invaluable in making the city look spick and span,' says Mr Garratt.

Street entertainers, such as jugglers and buskers, are encouraged, but must conform to a code of practice, for where they can perform, how they ask for money and how loud they can be. Fire-eaters can sign up, but they must first obtain insurance cover.

An evenings promotions manager, who is commercial director of Gala Clubs, is seconded to the steering group one day a week. His role is to improve the evening economy, focusing on the Wednesday late- opening evening. The city's restaurants are asked to provide family meals, selected pubs to host live jazz, cinemas to offer cheap tickets, and the car parks to provide stricter security at lower prices. Nottingham believes that the key to success is improved transport arrangements, not only for car owners.

'We are upgrading the quality and image of public transport,' says Mr Garratt. A 'supertram' is to be built. Commuter villages, which had lost their bus services, were last month reconnected to the city, using new 'midi' buses.

Oxford is also convinced that transport policy is the crux. It was the first city to adopt the park-and- ride system - free parking out of town connected to a cheap bus ride into the centre - and it now has four sites, and is building another two. These schemes account for 17 per cent of journeys into the city.

Oxford had been proud of its transport policies until the deregulation of buses in 1986. The number of buses in the city has doubled, benefiting people in the suburbs, but bringing severe congestion and pollution into the centre. It has led the district and county councils to look for other public transport solutions.

Oxfordshire County Council launched the country's first electric bus service last October. Like trams, they do not give out exhaust fumes, but need neither cables nor platforms, which would be unacceptable in such a historic centre.

Proposals to increase pedestrianisation have met with a positive response in public consultation, and the county council dismisses fears by small traders that they will lose custom. 'Experience shows that trade improves as the environment improves,' says Roger Williams, the county's chief transport planner.

Bournemouth has reached similar conclusions. 'We used to have a big roundabout in the centre, now we are creating a new civic space where the roundabout used to be, and taking the traffic out of town altogether,' says Peter Challen, the council's director of development services. The design emerged from a national competition for landscape architects, and involves water features, an events arena and a walkway to the sea front.

Several councils are using 'planning gain' to finance improvements to their centres. Oxford's local plan specifies that developers of six major sites will have to contribute to a new rail link. Imry Holdings, which this month announced it was building Europe's largest new city shopping centre in Southampton, is paying for a city centre manager, new pedestrian walkways, an events arena and transport improvements.

It is now being recognised that the urban environment is a positive factor which must be exploited. Bournemouth is emphasising its gardens, while Cheltenham is promoting itself as a town of culture, with attractive buildings and shops. Public concerns about urban centres - as places of crime, litter and which people try to move out of - are being addressed, and new shopping centres are replacing staid precincts.

Local authorities are leading the way in trying to reinvigorate the centres. It is just a shame that they did not do so before the Meadowhalls and Merry Hills of this world were built.

(Photograph omitted)