MP Sir Mark Hendrick has hit out at the state of Preston’s premier shopping road Fishergate after throwing his weight behind a national campaign to save the UK’s high streets.
The man who has represented Preston in Westminster for the past 19 years has criticised his home city’s main thoroughfare for having too many “charity shops, vaping stores, tattoo parlours and empty units.”
His remarks have sparked a debate over what Preston can do to save its prime street from a lingering decline brought on by the growth of online shopping and increasing competition from out-of-town retail parks.
Sky-high business rates, city centre car parking charges and the proliferation of street beggars have also been blamed for forcing shoppers to look elsewhere.
“Whatever it is, we need to do something,” said Sir Mark. “At this rate town centres are just going to die.”
The owner of one of the few remaining independent retailers on Fishergate, Bridget Deuchars of womenswear shop Novello, agreed, saying: “I would like Preston Council to look at business rates and parking - they are both major factors.
“And it doesn’t help having so many beggars who are very intimidating for many people.”
The precarious state of Preston’s prime shopping street has been highlighted in recent months by uncertainty over its Debenhams, Boots and Marks and Spencer stores.
This week Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group - owners of Topshop, Topman, Burton and other well-known high street brands - was saved from the brink by landlords agreeing to cut rents on some of its stores.
And the sight of Preston’s former British Home Stores building, still empty three years after the company went bust, is a powerful reminder of what could happen if the city centre loses its flagship brands.
Retail expert Dr Robin Carey, from the University of Central Lancashire, said the decline of the high street was due to much more than online shopping and out-of-town retail parks.
“It’s a wide-ranging problem with multiple factors,” he said. “Part of it is government policy, part is the bigger picture where people are looking for more convenience and part is a shortage of people with spending power.”
Shopworkers union Usdaw launched its Save Our Shops campaign in Westminster last week, calling on the Government to take urgent action to reverse the trend.
Sir Mark was at the event, which was addressed by Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
“Fishergate now is charity shops, vaping stores, tattoo parlours and empty units,” said the Preston MP. “There are homeless people in the doorways and you run the gauntlet of beggars.
“This is happening in high streets up and down the country. It was once a bustling street with all the brands. Compared with what it is now, it’s chalk and cheese.
“One of the things we need to look at is the leisure offer. There are restaurants, bars and cafes at Deepdale Retail Park - you can have a night out there now, so you don’t even need to bother coming into town.
“Many shops have moved out to places like Deepdale because rents are cheaper and there are no parking charges. It needs looking at.”
Leader of Preston City Council, Coun Matthew Brown, said: “The vitality of the city centre is a priority for the City Council and we are actively pursuing and promoting numerous measures to support the high street.
“Working with a range of partners we have made big strides in improving the city centre through transforming the public realm, encouraging city living and bringing empty buildings back into use.
“We have to accept that high street retailing is undergoing a national decline and the demand for retail premises on the high street will never return to former levels. This national problem requires a different local approach and we, as a council, have been promoting a diversification of city centre uses for a number of years.
"This approach is starting to bear fruit with a marked increase in city living and a greater variety of the food and drink offer being increasingly evident. We are also supporting new economic approaches to promote a more inclusive local economic model.
“We acknowledge that Sir Mark has Preston’s interests at heart in raising these concerns and that he is as committed as we are in seeking solutions to continue to improve the city centre environment. In response to specific issues:
"The council has secured funding and we are working with partners to help those in the homeless community with their complex needs and circumstances.
"Business rates are determined by central Government, not the City Council, but we will continue to lobby for a fairer system that reflects the viability challenges faced by northern towns and cities.
"We only own a relatively small percentage of the public parking in the city centre which we believe is competitively priced and which encourages city centre visits.
“We are doing everything we can to encourage investment into the high street and city centre. Shopping local and supporting local businesses is something that everyone can do to help, and we would encourage all Prestonians to do that too.”
Business leaders respond
Business leaders have defended Fishergate, despite admitting a cut in parking charges could help increase footfall in the city centre.
Mark Whittle, manager of the Preston Business Improvement District (BID), said: “The look and feel of Fishergate has significantly improved over recent years resulting in fewer vacant shops. However, the reality is that the high street generally is being disadvantaged by the growth of online shopping.
“Events and activities that offer an additional reason to visit are key to retaining and attracting custom. We must continue to work with partners to create additional reasons to visit the high street, over and above the business offer. It is the only way it will thrive.
“A reduction in parking fees may help to increase footfall, but hour by hour Preston’s charges are reasonable, competitive and parking spaces are not limited.”
On the issue of beggars, Mark added: “Nowadays, successful city centres are experiencing an influx of ‘career beggars’ and we are making a concerted effort to reduce their numbers.
“Recently, the Business Improvement District (BID) together with the police, conducted research into ‘city centre begging’. The results showed that the majority of individuals asking for money were not homeless.
“This has prompted the BID, through it’s CitySafe group, to fund a dedicated resource to tackle these individuals and also fund a public awareness campaign. The council also has a role to play in getting the message out and assisting us to get this campaign underway.
“We would ask the general public to consider donating to official causes rather than to individuals on the street.”
Trafford Centre on a street
It has been called the “Capital of Cool.” And its main thoroughfare made it onto the shortlist of the Great British High Street Awards.
Now Colne in East Lancashire is being hailed as a beacon of best practice when it comes to pulling in the shoppers.
“The town is thriving and the secret is our independent shops,” said interior designer Ash Sutcliffe who runs the Live Like The Boy business on the main street and was one of the key figures behind Colne’s bid for that national award.
“It’s great for people looking for something a bit different. And people are recognising that the people who run the shops are also their friends, family and neighbours, not part of a huge national chain.
“We believe that whatever is happening in the big cities can be transferred to the high street in Colne. And it could work for places like Preston.
“We are the Trafford Centre on a street. We can offer anything that the big shopping centres can, only in separate shops. And that’s the beauty of it.”
Novello womenswear store has been in Preston city centre since 1914.
It is one of the few independent family businesses on Fishergate and attracts customers from far and wide.
Fourth generation owner Bridget Deuchars says she has seen a reduction in footfall recently as fewer people shop “in town.”
“We are lucky because we have been here for 105 years and we have a lot of regular customers who come specially to us,” said Bridget. “But business has definitely dropped off a little.
“It doesn’t help with all the beggars in Fishergate who are very intimidating to many people. We are seeing a lot more on the streets than we ever have.
“I think the council could do more in that respect, as well as looking at business rates and car parking charges. They all make it harder to run a business in the city centre.
“I pay tens of thousands of pounds a year in business rates. I think that is ridiculously high, yet we don’t seem to be able to get the figure down.
“Parking is free at places like Deepdale and the Capitol Centre. Yet in town it’s quite expensive.
“There are a lot of issues really - and then there’s Brexit. That’s a worry for me because a lot of our fashions come from Europe, so it’s a nervous time at the moment.”
Dr Robin Carey from UCLan said numerous factors were contributing to the decline of the high street.
“With wi-fi, 4G and 5G, people don’t need to go into a store, they can do their shopping on the bus going into Preston,” he said.
“Rising business rates are a huge issue. But central government has cut funding massively to councils during 10 years of austerity, putting them under pressure to generate revenue.
“Over the last 10 years the economy has stagnated and we have seen a real decline in wages, giving people less to spend.
“And then there’s the Brexit factor where, since the referendum, we have seen a 15 per cent decline in the value of the pound. We have all taken a 15p in the pound pay cut due to the disaster that is Brexit.
“The cost of retailers importing goods has gone up, so it’s less profitable to be in retail.
“Add to that the out-of-town issue with free parking and plenty of toilets for children - try and find one in the city centre with changing facilities - and you can see how difficult it is for retailers in town.
“Lots of economic and social factors play into this picture and it’s not fair to simply blame it on the local council and online shopping.”
The vast majority of businesses in Fishergate belong to national chains.
A rough count shows at least 47 stores are part of bigger groups, compared to just 16 independents.
Added to that there are 14 banks or building society offices, nine phone stores, four coffee shops and 10 food outlets. Most of those also belong to big chains.
Debenhams is the anchor store in the Fishergate Shopping Centre, occupying three floors. It survived a cull of 22 of the company’s stores in April, which included the branch at Southport.
Marks and Spencer has been a fixture on Fishergate for decades and the company announced plans last year to shut around 100 stores by 2022. Preston, which also has a store at Deepdale, escaped the first raft of closures, which included an M&S at the Affinity outlet village at Fleetwood.
And Boots’ parent company warned in April that store closures are “possible” as it looks to cut costs. It too has an out-of-town store at Deepdale as well as Fishergate.