The Condition of the City Centre

The Editor,
Lichfield Mercury

Dear Sir,

The Civic Society has read with interest the letters in your columns over the last few weeks about the condition of the City centre. Your contributors have confirmed what has been the view of the Society for some time. There is without doubt a slow decline occurring in the quality of the centre. The Society has held a series of meetings with both County, District and City officers to monitor conditions in the centre over the last few years and continues to do so. During that time, we have drawn specific problems to their attention; some have been dealt with and some have not. The depressed state of the centre is due to a number of factors. Yes, the state of the economy is not helping, but there needs to be a realisation that internet trading is here to stay and that the scope and role of the City centre will and has changed. By hoping to develop the Friarsgate/Birmingham Road site for more retail development, we fear that the Council is not recognising current realities. No longer should we be assuming that "more of the same" is the way forward. Clearly, the retail market doesn't think so. Our own survey tells us that over 12% of the shops in the centre are now vacant. Common concerns of the shopkeepers we have spoken to include the scale of car parking charges which discourages shoppers, high business rates and high rental costs. Observation will show you that some of the vacant units are large and therefore less likely to be relet without subdivision. There seems to be a "Mr Micawber view" amongst some councillors, officers and retailers that "something will turn up", that something now being Debenhams. Whilst we welcome the company's arrival, this may prove to be a false dawn.

In addition to the depressed trading situation, we are increasingly concerned over the City centre environment. Our meetings with the Council officers regularly raise the state of the paving in and around the Market Square. We are told it is in hand, but although we recognise contract disputes and possible litigation, are of necessity protracted, it appears to the general public that nothing is happening. Simple repainting and renovation of street furniture does not occur, eyesores such as that at the rear of the former Kwik Save store or the neglected paving in the City Arcade are not tackled with the owners. Flower beds grow weeds. The Angel Croft Hotel, a Grade II* listed building, grows more derelict. Inappropriate shop frontages such as that on the now closed City Gold shop in the Market Place are not challenged. In contrast maintenance standards are addressed in the Three Spires precinct, which is managed privately. The benches and street furniture have just been repainted, there are no A boards. There is no litter.

Lichfield can be justly proud of its fine historic heritage, but it cannot be taken for granted. The Society does not see a Council that has a clear vision for the City centre. Yes, there are planning policies setting out the Council's commitment to maintaining and enhancing the centre's environment. Words are not action, however. The role of the City centre as a place to visit needs a rethink; one which would support more independent traders and capitalise on Lichfield's unique shopping and dining environment. All we see from the District Council is more of the same, hanging onto the forlorn hope that somehow the Friarsgate/Birmingham Road development will happen, to a design which in the Society's view is wholly inappropriate for a Georgian City.

The District Council oversaw a successful major refurbishment of Beacon Park. Why does it appear unable or unwilling to meet the challenges faced in the City centre?

John Thompson,
Lichfield Civic Society.
30th May, 2013