By Daniel Hunter

Confidence on the high street remains low as Britain prepares for what is traditionally the busiest shopping weekend of the year, according to new research.

The Local Government Association's annual Christmas town centre survey has shown that once again the festive season has failed to provide a boost for the high street, with 84 per cent of town centre managers stating that the level of confidence amongst shoppers in their personal financial positions has either not improved or has got worse compared with this time last year.

The particularly cold and wet start to this winter may also be taking its toll on the number of shoppers visiting town centres. Forty-one per cent of town centre managers who took part reported fewer people hitting the high street compared to this time last year. In 2011 35 per cent of town centre managers reported a decline in footfall.

Town centre managers were also asked whether they thought consumer confidence in high streets would improve in 2013. The results show a glimmer of hope in some areas, with one in five respondents expecting things to improve compared to just one in twenty last year and almost one in three anticipating the number of visitors to high streets to increase over the next 12 months. However, 48 per cent stated that they expect little to change over the next year and 29 per cent felt that things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.

Despite the poor outlook overall, councils are doing their bit to draw in the crowds. In Mid-Devon for example, the council has awarded a total of £150,000 to seven projects to help make the county's town centres more vibrant, including schemes to introduce rickshaws, use empty shops to host temporary exhibitions and setting up street markets. In Brighton the council is providing one-to-one training for independent shops on how to create inspiring window displays, and in North Tyneside a free ‘Drop and Shop' child care scheme has been introduced to offer local parents a chance to do their Christmas shopping unhindered by their kids.

Key finds from the report showed that:

- Nine out of 10 councils have created a festive atmosphere by putting up lights and Christmas trees etc.
- Fifty-five per cent of councils arranged for special Christmas markets to take place to help boost footfall.
- Just over half of councils (53 per cent) have introduced free / subsidised parking over the festive period.
- A third of councils (33 per cent) have helped businesses by allowing extensions in opening hours.
- Support for local businesses increased by 12 per cent with 39 per cent of respondents stating that their councils now have programmes in place to help promote independent shops and restaurants.

"Last year 86 per cent of those who took part in our survey thought there would be no improvement in consumer confidence on the high street in 2012 and it would seem from today's results that they were right on the money," Councillor Peter Box, Chairman of the LGA's Economy and Transport Board, said.

"Worryingly the outlook for next year is not much brighter. People's shopping habits are changing, and we need new creative approaches to revitalising our town centres.

"Christmas is obviously a very important time for the high street. It's therefore really encouraging to see so many local authorities working with local businesses over the Christmas period to help draw in the crowds by putting on special events, extending opening hours and offering discounts on public transport and parking.

"Although things like Christmas lights and decorations visibly highlight how local authorities are helping our high streets, councils play a central role in their local economy all year round. For example, 85 per cent of councils now host regular markets, which according to more than half of town centre managers, have really made a difference in boosting the number of shoppers visiting their towns.

"Every town centre is different, it is crucial that local councils, businesses and the community have the levers to adapt the local high street offer to meet local needs and opportunities. If we are going to improve the outlook for the high street long-term councils need new powers over borrowing, licensing and planning to effectively tackle barriers to growth at a local level. Urgent action is required if we are going to help our high streets turn a corner in 2013."

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