How Preston's high street can recover from Covid and the retail crash

Preston can survive the devastating high street blitz of 2020/21.

Thursday, 11th February 2021, 7:00 am

But experts say the city centre will never be the same again, with a reliance on big retailers already a thing of the past.

The sudden loss of store giants like Debenhams is guaranteed to hit hard. Yet the city council is already working with experts behind the scenes on a high street for the future which will look totally different to anything Preston has seen before.

More venues for food and drink, leisure, arts, culture and even a health hub could all spring up from the ruins of the retail crash. And the city centre should be a destination for visitors looking for more than just shopping to pull them in.

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The eerie quiet of an empty Fishergate.

“We can do it,” said deputy council leader Coun Peter Moss. “But it will need everyone pulling together to make it work. We can’t do this on our own.”

Preston will be a changed place when businesses are allowed to reopen after lockdown. Some big retail units will be empty, victims of the growing obsession with online shopping, accelerated by the Covid pandemic.

The Fishergate Centre is likely to bear the brunt, with its anchor store Debenhams the most high profile victim of the earthquake to hit the retail sector over the past year.

Occupying three floors, it has large boots to fill. And if the demise of another giant emporium on the city’s main shopping thoroughfare - British Home Stores in 2016 - has offered any lesson, it is that big is no longer beautiful when it comes to shopping on the high street.

The sorry sight of Topshop and Topman after closure.

BHS has stood empty and forlorn for the past four and a half years without any takers. And many believe the Debenhams store will need to be broken up into smaller units if it is ever to be occupied again.

But with other established brands like Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Wallis, Miss Selfridge and Evans also disappearing from the city during the pandemic, it is now accepted the search for tenants to occupy such large spaces will have to turn away from retail.

“Our high street is in a precarious position,” said the Preston Business Improvement District (BID) which represents around 800 businesses in the city.

“There is no doubt that whilst our retail offer will remain a very strong proposition, the city needs to find new ways of utilising space and premises to ensure that it remains a vibrant place to visit and to work.”

A sign of the times - empty shops in Fishergate.

The carving up of Sir Philip Green’s failed Arcadia Group between Boohoo, Asos and Australian fashion company City Chic has kept high street brands alive, but only online.

Boohoo, which has bought Debenhams as well as Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Burton, does not want the shops, just their labels and customers.

Similarly Asos has taken on Topshop, Topman, Miss Selfridge and HIIT, but does not intend to have a high street presence, just online sales. And City Chic has bought plus-size ladies outfitter Evans for £23m, but again without the bricks and mortar.

The disappearance of all those brands from Preston will mean the loss of 11 outlets in the city, including those in Outfit on the Deepdale Shopping Park, which shut down last month.

Losing Debenhams is the biggest blow to the city centre.

To avoid the city centre suffering death by a thousand cuts, Preston Council is now working with the Government-funded High Streets Task Force to find a solution.

Meetings have already taken place, also involving stakeholders such as BID, Lancashire County Council, UCLan and local companies.

Coun Moss, who is the cabinet member for planning and regulation, said: “The High Streets Task Force have come in to advise in terms of how we move forward.

“We are not the only ones experiencing this, lots of other towns and cities are going through the same. National (retail) chains falling by the wayside have caused this and everyone is going to be concerned about the future of their high streets.

“Clearly Covid has exacerbated and accelerated this, but it was already on a downward spiral with some of the big retail groups before the pandemic arrived. The days of just retail have long gone. Our high street is going to be a different place when it re-opens.

“Our message to everyone in the Preston area is ‘we can’t do this on our own.’ We need everyone working together to overcome all the concerns we are all feeling.

The former British Home Stores which has stood empty for more than four years.

“There are lots of positive things happening, like city living which has had some good results lately in increasing the housing supply in the middle of Preston. There is also the Stoneygate Masterplan. We have put in an application for Towns Fund money of up to £25m and we are hoping to hear some positive news on that shortly.

“But we need to find people who are committed to Preston and have as much passion as we have to make this work.

“With respect, Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group don’t have any sense of community responsibility to Preston. They have left Preston without thinking about the jobs that will be lost. We need local commitment, people pulling together to make this work.

“Landlords, some of whom are offshore companies, might have to come around to the realisation that businesses are not going to commit to 10 or 15 year leases any more. It could be that more short-term leases are needed and they will need to be more flexible and more realistic in that.”

Coun Moss said it was sad to see empty stores, big spaces no longer with the lights on. It was even more sad, he said, for the hundreds of retail staff who have lost their jobs in the biggest upheaval the city centre has ever suffered.

“Do we have all the answers? No we don’t,” he added. “Would we like to hear ideas from residents? Absolutely. Retail isn’t the future, so what would people be interested in?

“I would say to people: ‘Please help us.’ We want people with a passion for Preston. That’s the way forward.

“I have lived here all my life and I don’t want to see boarded up and empty shops. We need to make city centre more of a social hub, rather than somewhere people just go to shop. It’s important that people still go in.”

Mark Whittle, manager of Preston BID, said: “Losing big names is a blow to high streets up and down the country. Preston, like every other town and city centre, has to take stock of the challenges that the pandemic has created.

“We now have an opportunity, supported by stakeholders locally, regionally and in government, to understand what needs to be done to ensure our high street is future-proofed.

“We are pleased to be a partner of the High Street Task Force, along with the city council, which will assist us in accessing place-making experts to help redefine our high street here in Preston for the future.

“There is no doubt that whilst our retail offer will remain a very strong proposition, the city needs to find new ways of utilising space and premises to ensure that it remains a vibrant place to visit and to work.”

“Our rallying cry is that our high street, which typically welcomes hundreds of thousands of people in ordinary times, is in a precarious position.

“As and when restrictions permit, we must use it, support it and promote it to ensure that it continues to be a place of significant employment and enjoyment."

EXPERTS CALLED IN

The Government-funded High Streets Task Force is helping Preston to re-shape its city centre in the wake of the retail crash.

The group has already had a meeting with the city council, BID and other city stakeholders to discuss the way out of the crisis and advise how best to re-imagine what they can offer the public in the absence of big name stores.

Executive director Simon Quin told the Post: "The Task Force is delighted to be working with Preston. Our expert visit had an excellent response from the stakeholders who were present."

HSTF is an alliance of place-making experts who support communities and local councils to transform their high streets.

The Task Force said high street footfall has recently fallen by 45.2 per cent nationally, while online shopping has jumped from roughly 20 per cent in 2019 to 36 per cent by the end of 2020.

The number of multiple retail stores closing more than doubled from 2,051 in 2019 to 5,214 last year. Spending in cafes and restaurants was 46 per cent down over the same period and 51 per cent down in pubs.

"Preston is clearly not alone," said Mr Quin. "Covid has severely impacted retail and hospitality across the UK.

"It is clear that our high streets will no longer be dominated by retail. Towns and cities now have to plan to encourage healthcare, medical facilities, civic services, gyms, nurseries, GP services, indoor and outdoor sports and leisure facilities, education, co-working spaces, arts, culture, entertainment offers, community hubs, life sciences and other innovative uses into town centres.

"The high street of the future needs to revolutionise access to give more space to people, to encourage walking and cycling. Towns and cities need to develop the capacity to work collaboratively and inclusively to re-imagine their high streets and create new visions that will make them sustainable, innovative, exciting places to live, work and visit.

"Preston is one the pilot towns working with the Task Force and has already had a visit from one of our experts. The city and its leadership will now receive a report on unlocking potential in the area and then further input from other experts."

GOING, GOING, GONE

Debenhams (Fishergate Centre).

Topshop/Topman (At Fishergate and in Outfit at Deepdale).

Miss Selfridge (In Topshop, Debenhams and Outfit at Deepdale).

Dorothy Perkins (In Debenhams and Deepdale).

Burton (In Outfit at Deepdale).

Wallis (In Debenhams and at Deepdale).

Evans (In Debenhams and at Deepdale).

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