One of the biggest domestic issues that the Government has to deal with is how to support our high streets and town centres. There is no doubt that in recent years our high street businesses have undergone a huge amount of pressure, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.
Carlisle city centre is no exception. There are obviously a number of empty shops, and the loss of some national chains has not helped. However, I am optimistic. There are new entrants to our high street, it remains an attractive location – and if we plan properly for the future there is every reason it can transition to a new and successful city centre.
To achieve this, we need to understand the reasons why some high streets have been struggling, as well as the reasons that some have been more successful. I believe there are three key reasons.
Firstly, over time people have moved further out to the outskirts. Fewer individuals and families actually live in and around our town and city centres, and the de-residentialisation of city centres means an inevitable loss of footfall around central businesses.
Secondly, businesses themselves have also moved elsewhere – some to industrial estates at the edge of town. Where once large professional businesses, such as the Cumberland Building Society for example, would have city centre headquarters, they are now moving into larger out of town spaces.
And finally, the way people both work and shop has dramatically changed. Working from home has become commonplace and shopping online is now the norm. The knock on the door with a parcel delivery is as ubiquitous as the car full of shopping bags for many.
None of these changes of behaviour are wrong – and they are not going to change. They are just the reality of things. But in my view this need not be the end of our high street – far from it. It just needs to start to change and adapt and make itself relevant to the modern consumer and the new ways we are living our lives.
Clearly local councils have a role to play in this, with an opportunity to give leadership and to use the powers they have to assist. Some obvious areas to look at are planning and parking. They can also ensure that the physical environment is appealing to the consumer.
But we also need to make it easy for those who want to to live near the centre to do so. This would have a number of benefits, including the fact that there would be less need for cars and better access to services. But it would also help support high street business. Having modern offices available for rent would also attract businesses back into the centre, all of which helps to create a vibrant high street.
City centre shops, bars, and restaurants will only survive if there are people around to use them. Therefore, we need to have policies that attract people to live work and visit the city centres.
For Carlisle itself, despite difficulties, I believe there is a very positive future in sight. There will be transition, but the key ingredients are there. We have the refurbishment of the railway station underway and the move by the University into the centre. This will remove some of the excess retail space and bring people to the high street to work, to shop – and yes, to live as well.
Understanding these changes and working with them is the key to reviving the centre, not putting down our high street while continuing to do the same things. The centre of Carlisle is a space that has always had a lot to offer – if we adapt and plan properly, it still will, even as the world continues to change.