Lichfield City Centre: What of the Future?


2013 will prove to be a crucial year for the City Centre. If the wrong decisions are made, or no decisions are made, the City Centre could continue a slow decline to a point where crucial mass is lost so that its attractiveness for new retailers will decline further. Much reliance appears to be placed upon the ability of Debenhams to establish a viable store which, in turn, could increase footfall in the shopping precinct and attract new shoppers or previous shoppers to return. The Council should not assume that this will be so and can be done solely by the private sector; it has a role to play in attracting new retailers and encouraging existing retailers to remain.

The Current Picture

Whilst the District Council continues to assert that Lichfield City Centre is experiencing better than average retention of retailers, the number of empty premises is now approaching an unacceptable level; it detracts from the image of a vibrant shopping environment. The Friary Arcade is particularly unattractive. Vacant premises and unsightly paving there provide a poor shopping experience. Vacant premises at the top of the Three Spires Shopping Centre do little to enhance the shopping environment, although doubtless the Council is hoping that the opening of Debenhams will lead to an uplift. The range of shops in the City Centre is contracting and so the shopping choice is more limited. It could be argued that the balance of shopping choice is now skewed and residents have little choice but to go elsewhere for some items - for example there is only one shoe shop in the City Centre.

The advent of online shopping, the rise of the superstore and the depressed economic situation will combine to weed out the weakest centres. There is no return to the past shopping environment. If the District Council does not rise to the challenge then the City Centre will permanently contract through market forces - condemned to operate at a lower level of activity.

The Environment

Lichfieldians are justly proud of the quality of their historic shopping environment. It is, however, starting to show signs of distress. There are a number of areas of neglect and poor maintenance which, when brought together, give an impression of tiredness. These are:-
1) the former Kwicksave premises, its pedestrian alleyways and the rear service area, which present a poor image to residents and visitors alike;
2) unkempt landscaping adjacent to car parks (eg Greenhill);
3) the clutter of random, unsupervised car parking at the top of Greenhill, an important gateway to the centre. Why restore the memorial fountain and leave it stranded in a mess of parking and service boxes;
4) the deteriorating state of the block paving in Market Square, patched with concrete;
5) the patched pavement in Friary Arcade previously referred to;
6) uneven block paving in Market Street, attracting puddles in wet weather;
7) the continued use of the City Centre by unauthorised vehicles;
8) the shabby Levetts Fields bus station on Birmingham Road.

Lichfield City Centre is competing with surrounding centres for a declining share of retail business. If it aspires to succeed then it must provide a shopping environment that shoppers wish to visit.

How To Tackle the Challenge

Lichfield District Council assumed in 20xx that there was a need to provide more shopping facilities in an expanded City Centre. At the time, that was a reasonable assumption to make. In short, the policy was "more of the same". The proposed Friarsgate Centre has effectively stalled. Although ostensibly this was because of the increasingly difficult trading conditions; in truth the market was not attracted to Lichfield. Is there any reason to assume that it will be now? There are plenty of vacant units in the City Centre, of a variety of sizes. Any aspiring retailer would in the first instance opt for one of those. Their rentals are likely to be cheaper than any newly built units which, in any case, would not be in the immediate City Centre. The consequence is that the Friarsgate option is unlikely to be built in the short term. The District Council needs to put more effort into checking the decline in what we've got, rather than trying to pursue the impossible dream of an expanded shopping centre - and that is not an impossible task. Lichfield has a higher than average proportion of higher income earners as well as a high proportion of retired people. Disposable income is not low, yet expenditure is draining from the City Centre to Tamworth, Burton and Sutton Coldfield centres. Nearby, Cannock presents a more vibrant trading picture.

The Council needs to commission consultants to advise on the nature of shopping demand in Lichfield. Is it for small boutique shops or national chains, or both, and in what proportion? To what extent should any new shops seek to be tailored to the needs of tourists? Before any decision on the future character of redesigned Friarsgate is made, we need to know for what market we are seeking to cater. Perhaps the residents of Lichfield should be asked what they want?

In addition the Council needs to :-
1) review its parking policy. Shoppers will not be attracted to the City Centre when parking at Ventura Park (Tamworth) is free. Many already park at Tescos;
2) undertake a meaningful programme of small scale environmental enhancements in the City Centre;
3) explore ways of reducing the business rate burden in the City Centre;
4) undertake a meaningful dialogue with the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council to look at ways of attracting traders back into the Centre;
5) examine ways of further promoting tourism, including coach parking.

Complacency is not acceptable. To sit on one's hands and assume all will be fine, is not a strategy for survival in the changing and competitive retail environment.

Roger Hockney
8th March 2013