Our Industry Insider this week is Gail Laser. Gail has worked tirelessly for years as a volunteer campaigner to help improve the high street. Gail has invested an enormous amount of time and energy and has made a real difference to the community, the visitor experience and the environment. In addition, she has been a driving force in the digital transformation of Chipping Barnet’s High Street.
Working with other members of the community, she opened three pop-up shops, one of which is now an established up-and-coming business. Gail has also set up a Love Barnet page on social media, which now has several thousand followers and is instrumental in engaging businesses and the local community.
Other successes include setting up a local branch of Make it Your Business, a business group encouraging women to open or seek funding to open new local enterprises. She also instigated the ‘Next Door’ social media site that is widely used by locals.
What inspired you to get so involved in helping your high streets?
I suppose the bottom line is my love of retail and despair at the state of our high streets these days. I love where I live but as far back as around 2008/9 began to notice a decline. Shops were closing, the high street was beginning to look a little tired and with an early background and love of retail I felt pretty sad. I was also at that time already a Committee member of our local Barnet Society and saw it as my role to follow the high street and businesses as well as to try and engage with our local council and encourage them to invest as well as to better support the business community. Very long story short I kind of wriggled my way in to the local traders meetings and at some stage took over as Chair. I had help and support from several keen local community members and a council officer who in 2011 directed me towards the possibility of bidding for up to £500k from the Outer London Fund. I managed to pull together a group of local stakeholders and we drafted a bid. Our local council had to act as banker and conduit but somehow with loads of effort from us and outside input and support from the wider community the bid was submitted and we won. This is a story in itself for another day.
However I realised from doing all this work that amongst many issues was the fact that we had a pretty disparate community and a business retail community that didn’t really understand or communicate with. each other so I set up a website intending that the businesses would use it to promote themselves, up sell, offer discounts etc but this didn’t happen so I set up the Love Barnet Facebook page and decided to promote the local businesses myself. The rest of that is history. It’s worked pretty well and it links to Twitter. I’ve just added Instagram but need to use that more.
In between all this I have been very involved in planning issues, high street regeneration, Vice chairing our Town Team which we set up following the Outer London Fund, and loads more I should probably write a book.
What are you up to in Barnet at the moment?
Where to begin… Supporting and pushing for the proposed building of a Premier Inn that should bring much needed investment into the town centre. Working with a subcommittee to fight for the regeneration of our town centre that will with luck include a pavement build out regeneration scheme that a local architect and I decided and outlined at least ten years ago and that has been added to and grown by a team of us.
Supporting a brilliant Medieval Festival that will help to raise the profile of Barnet and was established this year following the exciting news that the site of the last battle of the War of the Roses was fought in our patch.
Just half funded through funds using funds raised through my pop up shops and shopping events an online downloadable “Discovery Games” trail through Barnet town centre to again help to raise our profile.
Constantly updating my Love Barnet Facebook page.
Meetings and more meetings with council officers looking at ways of seeking funding for regeneration and promotion.
Supporting and advising local entrepreneurs.
I ran the original Make it Your Business Group event here in Barnet early this year and am just about to host my third meeting as well as travelling around supporting other groups as I am the lead champion for the UK. Make it Your Business has been established to support women into business however large or small and give them opportunities to meet like minded women, have mentoring and more. I am very keen on this ideal.
Planning a very big high street clean up in the spring of 2019 involving builders and decorators and shoppers and school kids and residents. This wasn’t fully my idea. Mine was a little smaller but I’m thrilled to say that this is so much better and will be so much more effective.
Being part of a team no man is an island. Excuse the pun but it’s late.
What’s do you think are the biggest challenge facing high streets today?
Online shopping has made for a lazy shopping community.
How to change with the times. I think many high streets would be better served if they were smaller, change to some residential. Have town centre managers that work with local community leaders.
Lack of investment.
Absentee, disinterested, greedy out of touch landlords.
A nation of shopkeepers many of whom don’t understand retail or how to engage with the consumer (sorry) but think they just need to open a shop and it will make them money.
Business rates need a major overhaul.
Dirty cluttered streets.
Parking, although I think that if the offering is right people will be prepared to walk.
Transient residents that live in an area but work outside it and don’t get to really see it until they retire.
Recognising the needs of a younger generation.
What do you think can be done to increase footfall on our high streets?
Offer more recreation …play areas for little children, table tennis for the older ones.
Events that include opportunities to socialise so street markets that might include a beer fest or a cocktail bus.
Cleaner more attractive streets.
Less fast food and charity shops, nail bars and so on …we have 13, totally ridiculous. So management in terms of restricting the numbers within categories depending on the size of the street/ town.
Landlords penalised for keeping their shops empty.
New ways of encouraging small new independents, making it affordable.
Encouraging and supporting the setup of community groups that can encourage people to shop locally.
Affordable lamp post banner advertising for small independents.
How do you feel about being shortlisted for the Great British High Street award?
I’m thrilled, honoured, touched and a little embarrassed and couldn’t have done anything without the help and support of my amazing local community!
Where can we find out more about the work you are doing in Barnet?
Find me on love_barnet Facebook, Gail Laser LinkedIn, ask around the local shops and shopping centre. Pop in to Room 89, The Present, Odette Beauty, The Pink Shop. They can fill you in or ask members of our Town Team.
Our MP Theresa Villiers, our local councillor David Longstaff, look me up on the Barnet Society website.
Ring my mum she’ll vouch for me or just look me up online. There’s nowhere for me to hide.