Preston, procrastination and protest – retail heaven?

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Thank goodness blogs need not be about thorough research, getting your facts straight or sitting on the fence….or this one for me would be stuffed from the outset. I don’t pretend that the content is factually accurate, only that, in my memory, this is how I feel things have gone re the Tithebarn and, kneel down and praise the John Lewis Lord of retail project.

For those who don’t know, I was born in Preston and have lived here all my life save the three years I lived in Bradford as a student. I am 44 years old and I had a shop in the city centre for the best part of five years; the happiest and saddest days of my life in – equal measure – between 1991 and 1996.

We have a thriving student community and one, upon which, I feel, much of our city centre retail experience thrives….but is this dependence ever appreciated? Realised? Acknowledged?

The town centre has, for years, offered what I would describe as the standard, contemporary high street. We have many of the chains; M&S, Next, Debenhams, HMV, Waterstone’s, Evans, WHS Smith, Early Learning and let’s not forget Ann Summers. Nothing, however, that sets us apart, no reason, as I see for anyone to come here as opposed to supporting their own high street.

So for John Lewis to have conisdered us in the first place was, for me, manna from retail heaven, and, in many respects, sad, but no surprise, to hear this morning that they have pulled out.

Their chosen site, sadly, was the bus station, an area which serves as a real bone of contention for some, and a final solution for others. On the pro demolition side (for that is seemingly the only offer on the table), locals cite the bus station as a (forgive me) piss smelling dump, home to tramps, vagabonds and thieves. On the anti side, the building is such a superb example of concrete brutalism that it was recently awarded World Monument status, in a world where the Government failed to award it listed status. The anti demolition squad see the only option as saving the structure but refashioning it – renovate and recycle, what wonders might lie ahead?

It’s not a pretty building but my God is it striking? It is fabulous and if people could see beyond its current state of upkeep to a plush, refashioned functionality, in my mind, it could be the retail pull of the century. Let’s do a Liverpool One and get Q parks in to manage the car park, leaving the ground floor space open to a refurb – a funky shopping centre with maybe a Mango, a Zara, a Reiss, a Bar Burrito and hopefully a whole load of independent one-off shops.

Q’s car parks remind me of those in Spain, so sterile you could eat off the floor. You feel safe, and there’s oodles of room to park.

Safety…….my mother loves supporting the Guild Hall and the bus station car park offers her safe passage straight into the Guild Hall. At 77 years old that’s a peace of mind I love for her. It protects her independence and she loves it.

Spokespeople have stated that bringing John Lewis to the bus station site would bring new business to Preston, inferring that folk who had come from all over the Fylde, Lancaster, even beyond, would then visit our actual High Street and surrounding areas bringing much needed trade to an ailing shopping centre.

I disagree.

I think people would drive to John Lewis, shop in John Lewis and then get in their cars and drive home again, carrying their John Lewis booty with them.

John Lewis constitutes aspirational shopping. People love to say they bought something in John Lewis. To my reckoning, people don’t lend the same mental kudos to buying stuff in any other comparatively, billy common name, commonplace chain, so they can buy everything else somewhere else.

The Tithebarn Project, which includes the John Lewis-to-occupy-the-bus-station saga, could have been so different.

Now we read in this morning’s LEP that the Tithebarn Project has been parked, we need to get over it, and move on as there are other exciting prospects on the table. Really? How much money has been spent thus far on it? I’m itching to know. I know we’re in recession, I know funding from the NWDA and doubtless others was pulled almost as soon as the new Government was formed – but we all knew this was a potential, they said as much well in advance of being voted in….so there must have been a contingency?

Over ten years ago as a manager within a local marketing agency I was invited to represent our company to view the plans for the creative sector being mooted as part of the project.

Plans involved gathering a cluster of creative businesses; marketing agencies, craft makers, advertising folk, PR professionals etc to move to the same part of the city centre thus forming a hub, a hive of activity of like minded people and businesses upon which other industries might be borne…..independent cinemas, bijous cafes etc. A neat idea all pedestrianised and served by a park and ride tram system.

My observation, at the time, was a mixed emotion of excitement and jadedness. Excitement at the thought of our fabulous city being home to something like the Cornerhouse or the Cervantes Institute, surrounded by gorgeous one-off coffee shops serving delightful one-off cake-age! Jadedness because it seemed like it hadn’t been thought through.

Now it looks like the sum total of my aspirations might just be a Bar Burrito on Friargate to add to the countless others.

My issue at that time was being dependent on a park and ride tram. My place of work, a marketing agency, was a hive of activity, people came and went by the second, deliveries of print were made every hour, reps were in and out, clients came to pitches, we went to clients……relying on a tram to get you to your car would have been a nightmare. We needed 12 parking spaces right outside the front door, for our sole use, not to have to factor in an additional journey of 15 minutes when the client called and demanded our presence asap.

It was like the Tithebarn plan for this creative cluster had only been half thought through. Theoretically a great idea, and attracting those sorts of businesses would, undoubtedly, have grown the second tranche of new business….but how the hell was the first level meant to trade? Had anyone asked them how their businesses functioned?

And that’s how I feel about the bus station angle – it’s only been half thought through. And how do you build that sense of positive anticipation when you’ve not won over the hearts and minds of the immediate masses?

John Lewis say they have pulled out due to the current economy coupled with BAE job losses. Preston MP Mark Kendrick says the BAE reason is just an excuse, according to today’s Lancashire Evening Post.

But who knows?

If I can interject…when I had my shop in Preston all those years ago I could have literally shut down every time the Uni was on holiday. At Easter, in particular, I would go days without a single person walking through the door. The Uni session would restart and it was like I’d won the lottery.

I estimated that of a possible 52 weeks trading I realistically had about 30 weeks where I did what I would call proper business. And to have that shop again in the current climate is a no brainer….so I think it somewhat unfair, even if you are John Lewis, to be considered as making excuses…..I am sure the current retail climate is terrifying.

I glibly pass comment on a project that has been in the making longer than I can remember and I don’t underestimate that research has been carried out to within an inch of this project’s life but sometimes I do wonder if the managers of it have their eyes open at all. Do they visit other sites of retail success? What makes them think that this will succeed? Other retail hubs in the north are destination shopping paradises. Liverpool boasts some fabulous art galleries, great museums, a thriving theatre and music venue scene. Manchester can boast the same. People go there with other options than just the shop.

I love Preston but what else do we currently have to offer the out of town shopper, by comparison? Preston is in the crap, frankly, when it comes to retail. There’s a reason why the LEP, their commentators on twitter and the local retail force have been feeding us a daily diet appealing for us to help our local shops…because they are dying and need real support.

By all means develop the bus station site……rennovate it, do what Ben Casey mocked up so long ago – a beautiful vision that we all had in our heads, realised in his drawings….but not at the seeming expense of the city centre, Fishergate, Friargate, Cannon Street, Lune Street, Guildhall Street, all the roads around Winckley Square?

Stuff the yellow lines, remove the parking meters, introduce a one hour free parking initiative….give folk an easy passage into the city centre – trial it for 6 months….you can’t tell me it would cost you more in the loss of income from parking than the Tithebarn Project has cost you to date, or a new project might cost to consider in the wake of this failure.

Subsidise the rent and rates for those currently empty shops, for a finite length of time, as an incentive to bring new shops here, independent shops…again…would that be more expensive than what you now have to reconsider? Let’s not spend another ten years having another ten research projects on the viability of a blah blah blah initiative, let’s just get on with it. You must have a library of retail facts and figures at your disposal by this stage…and not all of them can be based on…well if John Lewis were to locate to the city then we can guestimate a rise in parking income of XYZ which will fund another discussion document on ABC…let’s just pull our fingers out and get the city centre up and running again.

Let’s park procrastination and get a wriggle on!

 

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3 Responses to “Preston, procrastination and protest – retail heaven?”

  1. John Lewis pull out of Preston as Tithebarn is ‘not financially viable’ « Blog Preston Says:

    […] Edmunson laments the failures of the Tithebarne project in her blog ‘Preston, procrastination and protest – a retail heaven?‘ and calls for action to get the project moving […]

  2. tonyworrallTony Says:

    Succinctly put. In a nut shell Preston is a place with a great future behind it – it’s past was the golden age. That’s what a small northern town, sorry city, should be celebrating not trying to be a flash Manchester copy. There is currently no heart in the place (with the exception of the university quarter – how come all UCLan’s efforts in the city are never highlighted). Your final points about the parking, low rental fees and pedestrianised areas are spot on. How come the council never realises these facts?

  3. Sally Edmundson Says:

    Thanks Tony. It’s hard to be so critical as a loyal and Proud Prestonian….even if my words possibly contradict that sentiment on occasion. I just want the best for the city! (Love your photos by the way!)

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