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Death of the high street in Carlisle or retail rebirth?

It reads like a roll call of the fallen: Benetton; ChameLeon; Chapman’s; Disney; Goldsmiths; Hawkins Bazaar; Hoopers; Jaeger; Past Times; Peacocks; the Yoko Fish Spa.

Hoopers photo
Hoopers, Carlisle

All shops in Carlisle city centre that have either closed, or announced that they are going to close, since the start of the year. The obvious explanation is to blame the economy, the double-dip recession.

Yet the likes of Chapman’s and Hoopers – if you count Hoopers’ previous incarnation as Bulloughs – have seen umpteen downturns and survived before. So what is different this time?

The casualties generally fall into two categories.

Chains such as Past Times and Peacocks whose parent companies have run into financial difficulties leading to store closures across the country.

And the likes of Goldsmiths, Jaeger and Chapman’s that remain solvent but chose to walk away when the leases on their Carlisle stores came up for renewal.

Hoopers department store is slightly different. The company owns its building and simply blames lack of trade for the decision to shut. Its stores elsewhere are unaffected.

Stephen Sewell, director of the specialist commercial property agent Walton Goodland, believes we are witnessing a sea change in the retailing scene.

He says: “Competition is fierce and retailers are having to change the way they do things.

“Supermarkets are not just food retailers any more, they are selling everything now.

“The internet has made inroads, particularly for electrical goods and books but less so for clothes and shoes, things people want to see, touch and try on before they buy.

“Retail has to adapt and it is adapting. Shopping in itself is no longer enough to attract people. Shopping centres have to provide entertainment and the larger shopping centres are good at that.”

He believes it is a weakness of Carlisle that the entertainment and shopping areas are separate. Botchergate is quiet through the day while English Street is dead at night.

And he observes that, while the large multiples are well represented in the centre, independent niche retailers are thin on the ground.

Mr Sewell says: “Carlisle doesn’t have the variety of independents that you find in Penrith and Kendal because the city lacks good secondary locations that will accommodate them at an affordable rent.”

That is changing. As the recession bites, rents are falling even in prime spots such as English Street.

Mr Sewell says: “When leases are up, or there’s a break clause, retailers can go to the landlord and say, ‘I’m going but I’ll take a new lease if you reduce the rent from £40,000 a year to £20,000’.

“There are quite a few cases where that happens and landlords are more flexible than they were two or three years ago. They don’t want empty properties on their hands.”

This is allowing independents to move in. Chris Archibald, for example, wants to take over the Jaeger shop next to his La Baguette sandwich bar in Green Market to open a cafe.

A planning application for change of use is with Carlisle City Council.

Mr Sewell says: “What I’m seeing on the ground is that there is demand and much of it is from independents.

“I was gutted for Carlisle and shocked when Hoopers said they were going but it has created an opportunity.

“The people who shopped at Hoopers will still want to buy the things they bought there and that presents an opportunity for independent retailers, such as boutiques.”

David Jackson, commercial director of The Lanes shopping centre, shares Mr Sewell’s optimism.

A strong Christmas was followed by a poor start to 2012 but footfall in recent months is on a par with 2011 and there is plenty of interest in vacant units.

Value women’s fashion chain Internaçionale is moving into the former Peacocks while menswear specialist Jack & Jones is taking the former Disney store. Both should open next month.

Mr Jackson says: “We have four other units available and we’re in detailed talks about all of them.”

He sees the wave of recent store closures as an evolutionary process that has always gone on.

“If you look at [jeweller] Goldsmiths, they have been in Carlisle a long time. In that time we’ve had [another jeweller] Peter Jackson open and bring in premium brands.

“Goldsmiths didn’t invest in their store. As a business you have to keep refreshing and renewing or a new name comes along and steals a march on you.”

He is encouraged by Debenhams’ decision to invest more than £2m revamping its store, the largest in The Lanes, which opened as part of a £30m extension to the shopping centre in 2000.

This will bring in new brands such as Ted Baker lingerie, Nautica, Phase Eight, Urban Decay and Art Deco. Mr Jackson’s main frustration is that the Lanes has no large units available to satisfy the likes of Primark.

The budget fashion chain wants to come to Carlisle but there is nowhere that meets its requirement of 60,000 to 70,000sq ft over two floors in a prime location such as The Lanes, English Street or Scotch Street.

He says: “Carlisle is a compact city and there are a lot of positives in that. Everything is within easy reach and we have a good range of shops.

“What we lack is the large units to meet specific needs. There are retailers who would take space if it were available. Primark is the classic example.”

Mr Jackson doesn’t believe that parking charges – £1 an hour for council-run city-centre car parks – are deterring shoppers or driving them to out-of-town locations such as Gretna Gateway.

He would, however, like to see reform of business rates to allow the city council to offer discounts to help struggling retailers. At present the uniform business rate is set nationally.

He says: “A landlord can take a decision to reduce the rent, and a lot are doing that to attract new businesses, but whatever happens to the rent one thing that doesn’t change is business rates.”

Regenerating the city centre is a top priority for the Labour administration that took charge of Carlisle City Council last week.

Currock councillor Colin Glover is the executive member responsible for economy and enterprise. He says: “We want to engage with retailers and try to sell Carlisle as a destination. We need other uses in the city centre, not just shops, leisure uses to attract families.

“We want to make sure the city is well placed so that, when the economic recovery comes, we can take advantage. We have to sell the location as more than just a shopping destination. We have great heritage assets and we will work with the likes of Tullie House to develop that.

“The Settle-Carlisle line brings hundreds of tourists. We have to make sure there is something for them to do when they come out of the railway station and they don’t just wander around with hands in their pockets.

“It’s about making a holistic offer so that Carlisle isn’t seen only as a place to shop.”

Mr Glover is hopeful that discussions with potential occupiers for Chapman’s store in Victoria Viaduct and Hoopers’ premises in Castle Street, opposite the Cathedral, will bear fruit.

He says: “What I don’t want to see is a creeping death coming in the city centre with boarded up shops.”

Staff at Hoopers were told last Wednesday that the company was in “serious talks” with another retailer who would take them all on so avoiding redundancies.

It emerged later that the would-be buyer is Philip Day, chairman of Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group.

Mr Glover says: “Hoopers’ is an iconic site. Hoopers own it and they don’t want to be sitting on an empty building.”

The council’s previous Conservative administration drew up plans for a ‘Business Improvement District’ (BID).

This would set up a company to enhance the city centre and boost its economy.

There are 120 BIDs in the UK. Nearby examples include Newcastle, Preston and Blackpool.

The initiative is funded by a supplement on business rates paid by businesses within the BID area.

In Carlisle, this would probably be one per cent of the rateable value of premises raising up to £230,000 a year.

It can happen only if a majority of city centre businesses – by number and by rateable value – back the idea.

A questionnaire has been sent to 400 of them with a view to holding a referendum later this year.

Mr Glover will look carefully at the responses before deciding whether to pursue the idea.

He says: “It must have support from right across sector. It’s not going to work if we push it onto businesses and retailers. We will have to see what the consultation shows.”

Have your say

Jim: the disc parking scheme run by the county council is indeed a good thing BUT free city centre parking is in the wrong places and for too limited a time. Do you honestly think that repeating ad infinitum your 'no other city..." mantra should be the end of the matter and that revising, reviewing and considering further options are somehow ingracious expressions from an ungrateful public? More could be done.

Posted by BM on 1 June 2012 at 18:54

LS, "The one thing that kills Carlisle is the lack of free parking."

Carlisle has vast amount of free parking. Something no other city in the country has. Your argument is utterly preposterous.

Posted by Jim on 31 May 2012 at 20:50

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