This is the historic city of Chester in North West England. With Roman remains a plenty, including the largest uncovered amphitheatre in Britain, the beautiful River Dee, and the world-famous ‘rows’ (two rows of shops – one on the top of the other) along the four main streets in the city, Chester has a huge amount going for it. Chester also boasts one of the best Zoos in the world, the oldest racecourse in the UK, has a modern business park populated with big names from the financial services industry, and is just down the road from the enormous Airbus factory in Broughton, North Wales. I have not even mentioned the wonderful Cheshire countryside, or the proximity of Chester to both Liverpool and Manchester. All of this is just over two hours on the train from London.
Chester attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year – both from inside the UK and from all four corners of the globe. With so much history to enjoy, it is not surprising. Chester also has a rapidly growing University, with thousands of students coming and going throughout the year.
Sounds good doesn’t it? It certainly did to me eight years ago when Naomi and I decided to relocate our family from London. One of the things that had always struck me with the Chester was the vibrancy of the city centre. You can sort of understand why – Chester is a very busy place. The shopping was absolutely renowned as being amongst the best outside of London. People would come from Liverpool, Manchester and even further afield to visit big brand names sitting alongside the dozens of small independent retail specialists nestled along the rows. 8 years after re-locating though, the centre of Chester feels very different.
This is the Forum Shopping Centre – slap bang in the middle of Chester. It is directly opposite Chester Cathedral, and less than sixty seconds walk to ‘the rows’. Bearing in mind the picture I have just painted of Chester, you would expect a shopping centre like this to be bustling with locals, students and tourists on a lovely warm, sunny day. This picture was taken at 12pm yesterday – Sunday 7th July. It is almost completely deserted. Like many of the cities in Britain, Chester has been devastated by economic instability since 2008. The majority of the shops in the Forum shopping centre (which also houses the Chester Market) have closed down. Only a couple remain. Spiralling business rates have forced both chains and independent retailers out of business, as has the effect of large ‘out of town’ superstores. A brand new Marks & Spencer store has opened near to Cheshire Oaks, a big outlet village only five miles from the centre of the city in Ellesmere Port. The centre of Chester still contains two, more traditional Marks and Spencer stores. It can only be a matter of time before one, or maybe both of them close down as well.
It is so sad to see the centre of such a beautiful and historic city ebbing away. This story can be repeated for many cities around the country – regrettably this is now a more common story than not. However this blog post is not intended to focus on the negative. Whilst retail experts, politicians and other interested parties lobby government to address the issue of business rates, it is time for the great British public to start taking matters in to their own hands. Whilst it is very difficult to control the behaviour of governments and landlords, it is within our control to keep our cities living and breathing – and most importantly creating great EXPERIENCES that encourage visitors and tourists to keep coming.
Yesterday afternoon, just a few yards from the entrance to the desolate Forum Shopping Centre, just such an EXPERIENCE was being created. From 12pm to 6pm, anyone lucky enough to be in the Northgate Quarter in Chester was treated to a festival of choirs. As the sun blazed down, hundreds of people were treated to the amazing voices of a dozen choirs on three different stages. Spearheaded by Chester’s very own musical supremo, Matt Baker, it was quite frankly the most amazing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It was an experience that anyone who was there will be recounting again today. As visitors delighted in the ‘free’ concert, restaurants and bars were full to the brim. The shops and market stalls that were open were doing a roaring trade. In a beer garden where another stage was located, it was difficult to find space to sit.
All of this was going on despite the fact that many people were glued to their televisions to see if Andy Murray could end Britain’s 77 year wait for a men’s champion!! Chester proved yesterday that it is possible to bring vibrancy back to Britain’s high streets. Chester proved that if local communities and local councils are prepared to work together, it does not cost a lot of money to bring people in to EXPERIENCE your town or city. What is required is a huge amount of time and commitment. Matt Baker is a great example of this – Matt and his colleagues gave up their time for nothing yesterday. For him, and many of the people performing, yesterday was his only day off from a gruelling schedule. Yet Matt understands that what happened yesterday was important. It was important for the community to stage an event that would make Chester proud. To stage an event that would bring people out in to the city centre. Matt and the other organisers of the event yesterday deserve a big round of applause.
Culture and entertainment is a critical component of a successful high street. If embraced, it can ensure a steady flow of visitors who will all need feeding and watering. Many of those visitors will need a bed for the night, and might partake in a little light shopping the next day. At the moment, Chester is lucky to be enjoying a run of the Chester Mystery Plays – a five yearly spectacle that celebrates stories from the old and new testaments. The plays are being shown in the nave of the Cathedral – a remarkable setting. Thousands of visitors are coming from all over the world to see them – it is great for Chester, and great for Chester’s economy.
Last week I visited Stockport. Another town in the North West that has not escaped significant economic decline. The state of their high street is even more extreme than Chester. However Stockport also has enormous potential. I was in Stockport to see Ciara, my eldest daughter appear in the choir alongside H from Steps (remember him?) in a production of Joseph. The production was being held at the Stockport Plaza – an amazing art deco theatre – if only Chester had a theatre like this!!
The benefit that this theatre will bring to Stockport is huge – it will be a draw to thousands of visitors well in to the future. Again, every visitor will have money to spend – and that is another reason why theatres like this need to be supported by a suitable high street – and vice versa.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not think that a festival of choirs, or an art deco theatre alone will save Britain’s high streets. I completely understand that it will take a little bit more than a few volunteers giving up their time to bring back national and independent retailers. What these volunteers did demonstrate though is what a positive effect the local community can have on bringing people into the centre of their towns and cities. If more people like the Matt Bakers of this world are prepared to do things like the choir festival, then more and more of us will join in. The more wonderful events that are staged every week, the more great experiences we will have. It is these great experiences that will keep us coming back, and that will lead us to telling friends and family to come to.
If this community effort AND common sense at a political level can come together, our high streets will start to go in the right direction. If retailers are supported by councils, government and landlords, our high streets will have a very bright future.
What fantastic events have you attended in your local high street? Where are communities working together to bring people back to the high street – I would love to hear your stories.