When Andrew Stringer arrived as the new general manager at Preston’s St George’s Shopping Centre, he took on a challenge. In the latest look at the state of Lancashire’s high streets, DAVID COATES speaks with him
It was almost four months ago to the day that Andrew Stringer settled down in the hot seat at Preston’s St George’s Shopping Centre.
In the time he has been in it, he has recognised not only the quality of shops, the loyalty of city’s shopping public and the potential to develop its high street, he also spotted chinks in its armour.
Having come from running a popular centre in the centre of Leeds, one of Britain’s boom cities, a sense of unity was one thing lacking in his new city.
The manager explains: “The success of any trading environment relies on a cohesive approach and over Christmas – a time when our retailers take up to a quarter of their annual sales – late night trading was disappointing. Appetite for late night trading from retailers across the city was mixed, therefore opening hours varied which sent out a confusing message to shoppers.”
He insists he is not convinced late night shopping is the answer, but recognises such operations are “the norm” on out-of-town retail parks and therefore city centres like Preston must take an equally flexible approach.
The reason why is all around him with his own centre having empty shops – albeit a healthy ratio of just 10 empty units out of 103 – and the neighbouring Fishergate (14) and Friargate (10) also showing gaps in its retail core.
The much-publicised plunge into administration of the likes of HMV, Blockbuster and Jessops in recent weeks only add further to the voids and, according to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the body representing property experts, the problem is going to continue.
Its latest research shows 13 per cent of its members expect to see the amount of cash going into landlords’ pockets as fewer retailers seek to rent and more go out of business.
RICS chief economist Simon Rubinsohn says the demise of some of the high street’s best-known names paints a downbeat picture for the high street in Lancashire.
“Sadly, this doesn’t look like it will change any time soon, with demand for retail space continuing to drop and more empty premises set to blight the region’s town centres,” he admits.
“Significantly, though, last quarter did see demand for office and industrial space increase in Lancashire, but only time will tell as to whether this is a genuine sign of recovery. It is encouraging that an appetite is gradually growing in these areas as businesses look to expand.”
For Andrew Stringer, the problem goes a lot deeper than merely empty shops, which is little more than a symptom of a wider problem.
He concludes: “We have to ask ourselves – what is it we are doing to establish Preston as the place to shop? Local government, city management and business owners need to come together and agree on how to create an experience for our public.
“Consensus on what’s on offer, a minimum trading pattern and a strategic plan to add incentive to the city’s visitors should be priorities. We cannot wait for significant investment. Instead we can achieve success collectively and creatively.”