Wednesday, 25 November 2015

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Do Cumbria's high streets need a makeover?

In case you hadn’t heard, the high street is struggling. A perfect storm of economic downturn and competition from the internet and out of town shopping centres has hit hard.

Town centre vacancy rates across the UK have doubled over the last two years. And the effect is felt beyond the businesses concerned as once-thriving town centres become wastelands of boarded-up buildings.

The Government has just appointed Mary Portas, the so-called ‘Queen of Shops’, to lead a review into the future of the high street.

Retail consultant Ms Portas, who previously tried to turn around the fortunes of ailing retailers in BBC2 show Mary Queen Of Shops, will advise on tackling vacant stores, preventing “clone towns” and increasing the number of independent retailers. She will visit town centres across England and report her findings by the autumn.

David Jackson, commercial director of The Lanes shopping centre in Carlisle, welcomes her appointment.

“One of the main ways the high street in Cumbria differs from a shopping centre is, there’s no particular group communicating with or representing the individual shops.

“Who’s in charge? If Mary is going to bring high street retailers together and put a structure in place, that’s good. Other towns and cities do it and I think it could be beneficial in Cumbria.

“In a shopping centre, we’re looking at the mix. Do we want another shoe shop? Do we want a men’s clothes shop or a ladies’?

“On the high street the mix is normally dictated by a collection of individual landlords, without much overall strategy.”

Those who bemoan “clone towns” feel that independent retailers should figure more prominently. David Jackson doesn’t mind the theory but he does question the sums.

“It’s purely economics. If Topshop come in and it’s £100,000 a year, and a local clothes shop offers £50,000, you’re not going to offer it to the local clothes shop.

“I think independents can be helped in other ways, like advice. A lot of independents are start-up businesses which don’t always have the wherewithal.”

Mr Jackson feels out of town shopping centres are not a major issue in Cumbria, but the internet is as much a part of life here as anywhere. “Internet shopping is there. But a lot of retailers are now what they call multi-channel. They try to make their website complementary to their high street store. You can order from the high street store or deliver to the high street store or take it back to the high street store for a refund.”

Bill Lightfoot runs Lightfoot Greengrocers on Wigton High Street. What can be done to save town centre shops?

“I have a very boring theory,” he says. “One thing will save the high street: free parking.

“All the supermarkets have it. In Wigton we’ve had about a 300 per cent increase in parking charges in the last few years. It’s very difficult for us to compete.

“We’re not asking for any favours. All we want is a level playing field. Give us that and we will compete.”

Independent retailers in Wigton have spent the past few years under the threat of a Tesco superstore on the site of Hope’s Auction Mart.

Mr Lightfoot feels the proposed Tesco site is too far from the centre of Wigton to persuade people to use other shops in the town.

“The answer for planners is, if you’re going to have supermarkets, have them slap bang in the middle of town so we see the benefit of the off-spill and the free parking.

“With planning rules and regulations, if we are treated the same as the supermarkets, fair enough. We are limited to what we can do with our buildings. Supermarkets seem to be able to widen streets and move listed buildings.”

But he senses a shift in public mood against supermarkets and towards the small independent trader.

“I think it’s probably bottomed out somewhat. People don’t want to see the high street dying. I’d like to think that in five or 10 years it’s much the same as now, maybe a slight improvement.”

Victoria Farley was manager of department store Hoopers, opposite Carlisle Cathedral, for four years. She now runs Lanercost Tea Room with her husband Michael.

She feels that banks could play a bigger part in helping small retailers to make town centres more attractive for shoppers.

“If town centres are competing against out of town, they need individuality in things like architecture and range of shops.

“Cumbria has a good mix of independent retailers. But to create new businesses to compete with the big boys, somewhere along the line they need a little bit of a helping hand.

“The Government is saying growth is going to come from the private sector. How? The people who have got talent are knocking on the doors of banks who are not interested.

“We’re not talking about a gamble. We’re talking about relatively small pots of money that would make a big difference. I wouldn’t expect something for nothing. You have to have a proper business plan. It’s got to be sustainable and profitable.”

Persuading people to travel into a town centre needs more than shops.

“We hear it all the time about most towns: ‘I could be anywhere.’ You’ve got to stimulate people. If you’ve got strong performance artists in the university, why are we not seeing more buskers on the street?

“You’ve got to create a bit of a buzz. You could have empty units being mini art galleries. People who own empty properties should be charged with looking after them.

“Carlisle did badly in a customer survey a couple of years ago. I think one of the reasons was dilapidation. Everyone can do their bit. It’s civic pride more than anything else, rewinding to the days of washing down your doorstep.”

Rob Johnston is chief executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, the county’s biggest business group with 1,400 members employing 60,000 people.

“In Cumbria we are not seeing what some parts of the country are seeing in terms of empty retail space. It’s holding up surprisingly well, given the state of the economy. We’re seeing a lot of businesses still wanting to develop their retail offer.”

But like Bill Lightfoot in Wigton, he feels the importance of making life easy for motorists can hardly be overstated.

“In Cumbria we’ve got a population that relies on the car rather than public transport. Easy access to our town centres is really important. Cost of parking is less of an issue than availability. It’s the ease, the feeling of security.”

And like Bill Lightfoot, Rob Johnston thinks supermarkets should be close enough to high streets to make it easy for people to shop at both.

“There are some very good examples around the UK where supermarkets add real value to the area. Extra footfall can help the businesses that are more specialist. We’re certainly not full of doom and gloom.”

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