The death of the Town Centre. We're all to blame!

The disappointing news that House of Fraser is to close many of its stores across the UK should be the defining wake-up call to all those who doubted the destructive might of the Internet. It is only when something as big as this happens that reality sets in and we are forced to confront a future that is very different from our past.  In my hometown of Carlisle, this news will hit them hard and I feel for the staff that woke up to this announcement today.  

In this great city, they have already suffered from the loss of what was once called Bulloughs, which later became known as Hoopers. Like many, we had C&A, County Store (Co-op), creative furniture shops and small retail family run outlets but they are going fast. The big iconic department stores set the tone and provided a wonderful difference against the buzz of the colourful local market and enjoyable coffee shops etc. House of Fraser, once called Binns was part of my life. I met Santa Claus there, amused myself for hours talking to Harry on the lifts, occasionally ate in their brilliant restaurant that provided white linen tablecloths to set a certain standard; we got measured for suits and spent hours picking and listening to records in the basement shop; if you were lucky, you were taken on at peak times such as Christmas and Easter or perhaps even a Saturday job. It also had fantastic staff, some of the best in the business who took pride in working there. I can’t tell you the excitement my mum had when she was able to afford curtains for our front room from that store; it made her year and the neighbours jealous.  The same was said for Bulloughs, which now stands empty highlighting to all that we now live in a very different world.

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For a city with a population of around 100,000 we punch above our weight and yes, we still have a number of great stores to visit such as those in the excellent Lanes shopping centre for example. Recently, the city had long queues when Primark opened up there but the pressure is now so great and lure of the mouse so magnetic, that few are comfortable in the high street today. If the city were to lose another giant like Debenhams for example, it could very quickly look like a ghost town, and that won’t be very ‘special’ at all.  Already, we have too many charity shops for my liking yet this is not unique to Carlisle by any means. Around the UK, we are losing our banks and national names in the pursuit of progress; we are in many ways, losing our identity in the rush to find a bargain. Every town centre needs a mix of shops, big and small, local and national, creative and interesting but it is profit that keeps them here, not foot traffic.  You have to buy not just look. 

Who’s to blame for this you ask?  Sadly, we all are.  Every time we order something online, we fire another nail in the coffin. Believe it or not, the stores themselves are equally at fault, not because they want to, but because they have no choice.  Last December, I went to the House of Fraser in Carlisle and was told an item I was seeking was out of stock but guess what?  I could order it online.  

The challenge to keep our town centres alive is enormous.  Few have found the answer but what is clear, is that an answer must be found. We have impressive council leaders, a forward thinking chamber of trade and a group called the Carlisle Ambassadors. They have come up with some good initiatives of late such as ‘give a day to the city’ etc, but with this news such action may now look like painting the patient's nails as she’s dying from a heart attack.   

It’s not as if there has been no effort. Many famous and very experienced people in fashion and retail were paid a small fortune by the Government to come up with a solution to keep the high street alive but you can’t swim against the tide. Shopping is time consuming. It often means finding a parking space, often paying outrageous charges (why?), walking in the rain or dragging things back on the bus and it all seems so much bother when you can just click a mouse and have it delivered!  We are a lazy lot and that includes me.  

This is all so, so sad.  Carlisle is a brilliant city, my home town and the heritage alone is a magnet for tourism so we have to have faith in our leaders to come up with new ideas that bring all this together and quickly. I doubt there is anything more urgent and there is of course much more to the area than shopping but equally, it is hugely important as empty stores are destructive to the locality and people's pride in where they live. We have a lot of positive things going for us and we have great people but to save what we have will mean soaking up a little pain, working harder as a community to support local businesses and paying more for the benefit of having a centre at all.  This announcement may provide an opportunity to think big and differently and while this is not the councils fault, they could use it as a chance to redifine the great border city. Who knows? 

As my dear old mum used to say.  You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. 

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