Business Secretary Vince Cable yesterday surveyed the town centre after one of the bleakest weeks for the stores and declared that Eastbourne was well set to weather the economic storm.
After a torrid seven days, which has seen the collapse of familiar High Street names such as Jessops, Blockbuster and HMV, the Lib Dem heavyweight admitted that he was very concerned by the retail fall-out.
But on a whirlwind visit to the town yesterday with Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd, Mr Cable rounded off the trip with a walk through the town centre along with Arndale Centre manager, Bill Plumridge, to learn more about the shopping complex’s £70 million redevelopment plan.
“The fact that we have had three big chains running into trouble simultaneously is obviously a shock,” he said. “I am concerned about the impact on employment and those who have lost their jobs.
“The big story here is the painful impact of very rapid technological change. There has been an enormous growth of online shopping which has not been properly understood.
“Britain is the most advanced online shopping country in the world, except for Finland and possibly Sweden, and this displaces a lot of traditional shopping.
“A lot of people are now getting things like music and films online, so they don’t go to places like Blockbuster or HMV, and the problem is that a lot of those companies have business models which were designed for a different era.”
Asked if he was worried about the future of the High Street and whether the new-look Arndale Centre might be full of empty shop fronts, the Business Secretary responded, “We can’t control people’s shopping habits – it is not the role of Government to do that, but we have preserved the principle of town centre first in planning decisions which is very helpful to town centres, and where you have good local schemes such as the Arndale Centre re-development.
“It is a success story for Eastbourne and towns like this are sufficiently resilient to cope with the fact that individual shops have had financial problems.”
He added, “A few years ago, people’s preoccupation was what was happening to independent stores; local brands and local names. But that is now not an issue, we are stabilised.
“Today we are talking here about national brands which have not stood up to the ferocious competition
Mr Cable pointed out that unlike issues faced with the decline in the manufacturing industry, he believed the problems which the retail industry was now facing would be easier to manage.