To the untrained eye, Roeselare – a small Belgian city in the province of West Flanders – is fairly unremarkable.

On a midweek morning in February, its streets are relatively quiet, except around the bustling market area. With a population of just over 60,000 and a catchment area of around 200,000, it is pretty but nondescript.

However, appearances can be deceptive. Around the globe, Roeselare has become the somewhat unlikely watchword for retail innovation. Representatives from local authorities as far afield as New Zealand have visited the city to see first hand the cutting-edge ideas implemented at Roeselare with a view to implementing them in their own jurisdictions.

The city owes a huge debt of gratitude to British high street guru Bill Grimsey, who has essentially been using Roeselare as a petri dish for his ideas.

The relationship between the city’s leaders and Grimsey began in 2013, when Vanessa Dehullu, head of housing, economics and agriculture at Roeselare council, saw a presentation of The Grimsey Review at a meeting of civil servants in Ostend.

Dehullu and Kris Declercq, the then alderman of economic development, were blown away by the presentation. Dehullu says that at the time, Roeselare was starting to feel the wind of change blowing through retail thanks to the rise of ecommerce and decline of some high-street retailers.

“We noticed that shops were staying empty a little bit longer and retailers were complaining that their revenues were diminishing month after month,” she recalls.

“We have always had a big attraction locally, but mainly for people to come and do their shopping. So retail is a little bit in our DNA, but that was also our weakness, because if retail is under pressure and your touristic value is shopping, then it becomes a weakness. We knew that we had to keep the footfall coming somehow.”

Development plan

Much of what Grimsey said during his presentation struck a chord with Dehullu. “He said that you have to have a ‘knowledge centre’ in the middle of the city and we were already working on building a knowledge centre in 2013,” she says. “He also said you have to think further than just shops – you have to have a broad idea of what you want your city to be and create a development plan.

“We thought that maybe it would be interesting for us to implement the rest of his ideas and see what effect it would have on the revenues of the retailers in our city.”

Shop & Go scheme, Roeselare

Retailers and shoppers have welcomed the Shop & Go scheme

So in late 2013 and into 2014, under the leadership of Declercq, Dehullu and her team started undertaking studies and working up a development plan for the city.

In 2015, Declercq became mayor of Roeselare and, having already worked on the project for two years, was able to fast-track the implementation of the city centre plan. Grimsey was invited to the launch so they could present their ideas to him.

“He didn’t know we were working on this plan,” says Dehullu. “So when we called him and said ‘we saw you in 2013 and we did this, this and that’, he replied: ‘Really? It’s not possible.’ And we said: ‘Yes – we took your plan to heart and worked on it.’”

At that stage, construction of Roeselare’s ‘knowledge centre’ – known as ARhus – was nearing completion in the heart of the city. But other than that, Dehullu did not really have anything concrete to show Grimsey beyond a presentation of the city plan taking on board some of his ideas, which were given “a twist with our local DNA”.

‘Empty shop tax’

The plan featured 50 action points that have all since been implemented or are in the final stages of delivery.

These action points included offering free parking on one of the city’s main retail streets, giving retail property owners an incentive to fill empty units and encouraging businesses, including retailers, back into the city centre.

Cycling museum, Roeselare

The cycling museum has been renovated

One of the most controversial measures – which has also been one of the most successful – is the way the city decided to address the issue of empty shops. If a unit is empty for one month, the landlord receives a letter from Dehullu’s team.

“The letter says: ‘We’ve noticed your unit is empty, but we can help you. If you have any questions you can come to us.’ We also tell them that if the unit is still empty after one year, they will have to start paying tax,” says Dehullu.

The city’s ‘empty shop tax’ is based on a unit’s zone-A space and the longer the unit is empty, the higher the rate of tax.

“In the first year, they might pay between €5,000 [£4,300] and €10,000, but in the second year it doubles,” says Dehullu. “That’s a big motivation for them to drop rents if they’re starting to reach the end of the first year and they haven’t found an occupier.”

After units have been vacant for a year, landlords can put their properties into a scheme called ‘Roeselare Excites’, which allows start-ups to rent retail space on a pop-up basis in the city on a fixed low rent.

Thanks to this scheme and other incentives offered by the local authority – such as refunds on property tax for city centre shops and funding of up to €7,500 to help retailers open a second unit in the city – Dehullu estimates that in the past two years, about 30 to 40 new shops have opened. Some have been pop-ups, but many are permanent lettings.

The initiative has had a significant impact on vacancy rates in Roeselare, says Dehullu. “Today, vacancy rates are 8.3%; and average vacancy rates of other cities like Roeselare are 9.6%. So vacancy rates are not dropping, but they are stagnating, particularly compared with other cities in Belgium, where vacancy rates are as high as 12% to 15%.”

To keep vacancy rates in the centre down, Dehullu’s team has worked hard to persuade retail occupiers on the outskirts to move back into the city centre.

As with many other cities across Europe, there are a lot of large units occupied by retailers such as furniture stores on major roads leading into the centre of Roeselare. To stem the expansion of these developments, the city authorities successfully applied to the Flemish government to be allowed to implement new laws restricting the creation of out-of-town retail.

Out-of-town limits

“We refuse every planning application for new out-of-town retail space,” says Dehullu. “We are not trying to get rid of what is already there, because we have to maintain what we once permitted, but we want this space to diminish.”

At the moment, many of these out-of-town units are empty or struggling to attract occupiers and she hopes they will be filled by larger leisure occupiers such as climbing-wall operators and children’s entertainment businesses that require the sort of large-scale space not necessarily available, or wanted, in a city centre.

In addition to trying to woo out-of-town retailers back into the centre, she is working hard to attract new businesses and entrepreneurs to take office space in the heart of Roeselare and to persuade landlords to convert redundant storage space above city centre shops into housing.

“We refuse every planning application for new out-of-town retail space,” says Dehullu. “We are not trying to get rid of what is already there, because we have to maintain what we once permitted, but we want this space to diminish.”

Vanessa Dehullu, Roeselare council

The latter is a relatively new initiative, but Dehullu says it is gaining traction with landlords that own retail space with storage above units along East Street, the town’s main retail area. Funding of up to €7,500 has been made available to pay for the cost of renovation and she hopes that more landlords will take advantage of this opportunity over the coming months.

The initiative is all part of the wider plan to increase footfall in the city centre throughout the week. The local authority organises 19 large events throughout the year, ranging from a Valentine’s Day event through to a Black Friday sale. The latter, which takes place in bricks-and-mortar stores on the city’s streets rather than online, has been tremendously successful, says Dehullu.

A local food market takes place each Friday at a church in the city centre, which attracts a different demographic of customers as the day goes on, from older people in the daytime to young people in the evening.

Increase in footfall

ARhus also hosts a wide range of events aimed at different age groups and acts as a meeting place for community organisations. Footfall at the site, which doubles up as a library and community centre, increased by 25% last year.

The national cycling museum, which opened in September opposite the square where the market takes place, has also been renovated and relaunched.

Church, Roeselare

A food market is held at the church every Friday

“You have to try new things that keep the city centre interesting and you have to work at it on a daily basis,” says Dehullu. “These things don’t necessarily have to have something to do with shopping, but if you visit the cycle museum there is plenty of information about shops in the city centre and it is located not far from the city centre, so you can make a day of it and have a meal after your visit.”

Another footfall-boosting initiative is the free parking scheme along East Street, christened ‘Shop & Go’. Sensors have been installed in the street’s parking bays that detect when a car arrives and leaves the bay. People can park for 30 minutes without paying or taking a ticket.

“Let’s say it’s a Tuesday or a Thursday when there is not a lot of traffic around,” says Dehullu. “You might have an elderly person who just wants to pick something up. Previously they used to have to pay and take a ticket and they would lose time. Now they can park up, pop to the local shop and drive away in 30 minutes. It’s one of the most successful things we have implemented and almost all the retailers that have that kind of parking space in front of their shops are very content.”

As a result of the scheme’s success, Shop & Go will be rolled out to other parts of the city under the new city centre plan, which the mayor, Dehullu and her team are working on.

Dehullu intends to evaluate the effectiveness of Roeselare Excites to see if the local authority can broaden the initiative. She also wants to introduce some smart city elements and potentially spruce up some of the older streets by introducing new public realm features.

“We have evaluated the original city centre plan; we have looked at our vacancy rate, our footfall, how successful it is, how many shops are closing, how many new shops are coming in, how the traffic is doing, whether there are traffic jams, what we can do to improve,” says Dehullu. “It’s about constantly monitoring and constantly seeing what works and what doesn’t work.”

She envisages developing the new city centre plan over the course of this year and implementing it between 2020 and 2022. Some of the ideas in the plan will come from Grimsey – he is due to visit the city in May and Dehullu intends to use him as a consultant – and some have come from her travels across Europe.

Outside ideas

Dehullu and her team have looked at a number of other cities across Europe and with the mayor she intends to visit Stockton-on-Tees in June to see some of the initiatives the local authority has put in place.

She acknowledges that what works elsewhere will not necessarily work in Roeselare and vice versa. “Some things we have to give a local twist to because otherwise they wouldn’t be the right thing for Roeselare.”

“If you have passion for your city, you can’t just sit by and watch your vacancy rates going through the roof”

Vanessa Dehullu, Roeselare council

 As for the advice she would give other local authorities that want to pursue a similar approach, she urges patience.

“Don’t expect miracles to happen in one year’s time,” she says. “It is something you have to keep going at and maintaining for years and years.

“If you have passion for your city and if you want to see your city thriving and doing well, you can’t just sit by and watch your vacancy rates going through the roof and see people leaving the town. You have to try things.

“Sometimes these things will fail, but doing nothing is not an option because you will end up with a dead city centre.”

The expert’s view: Simon Morris, director, GCW

Simon Morris

It’s not new, but how people engage with retail and retailers has changed: they value the ‘Instagrammable’ moment over product, they want to engage with an experience on whatever level and they believe generic product is better bought online. When the sum of world knowledge is in your pocket, places have to make sure they deliver if they want people to turn up.

The most vulnerable places are those stuck in the middle – not the local/convenient or more experiential locations. Roeselare, which has adopted some of the principles of the Grimsey report, is a town in that middle ground.

Has it got it right? It’s still a town with issues including oversupply of retail property, but it’s got strong local leadership with a plan that is focused on localism and driving loyalty from its catchment.

There’s an acceptance that it [the city council] can’t make people shop or spend in the town but it can provide more reasons for people to visit for non-shopping purposes and to make those visits easier.

Roeselare has developed a strong brand identity that is authentic, not manufactured, and used this to bring a sense of community by developing a series of events, both regular and seasonal, around this.

There is an investment in public realm and a carrot-and-stick approach to help reoccupy vacant premises.

For a place to be desirable, for people to spend time and so be successful for all stakeholders, especially occupiers, owners and local authorities all need to play their part.

However, someone has to take the lead. In Roeselare, the local government is committed and putting a solid plan into action. The council seeks to find ways to embrace the plan and use individual frameworks to deliver its objectives.

Many towns in the UK need to react to the changing environment to remain relevant. There are some simple lessons that can be learnt from Roeselare, but are we up for the challenge?