Simon Parker: Only radical thinking can save our market towns
Liskeard is my nearest town. Do I use it? Rarely. Why not? Because even though Launceston may be a mile or two further from where I live it's infinitely more attractive.
It wasn't always the case. Until a few years ago, Liskeard bustled like any other small Cornish market town – particularly on a Saturday morning. In those days a visit to Liskeard was a pleasant experience. As well as stocking up on essentials and luxuries, there was the social dimension, the bumping into friends, going for a coffee, chewing the fat – all the things that grease the wheels of a community.
So what's changed? The rot started when planning was given for an out-of-town supermarket. Liskeard already had a Co-op and a Gateway but planners bowed to the demands of big business and waived it through. Local people were enticed from the centre with free parking and more choice. Liskeard traders' problems were compounded when a DIY shed, followed by Argos and now Pets At Home sprung up – taking yet more trade from the town centre.
Then came the internet. Why trawl around the shops when, with the click of a mouse, your desired item is ordered? But where does it leave oiling the wheels of a community? The reality is that, like it or not, times change – and if businesses don't react to those changes they're finished.
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So in order to ensure town centres survive we have to ask why so many of us have turned our backs on traditional high streets and opted for a combination of out-of-town superstores and shopping online. Unless we're up-front about the causes there's little hope of a solution. And unless traders and councillors adopt a radical rethink the situation will become terminal.
Liskeard, unlike Launceston for example – which appears to be thriving – suffers from its geography; it's too close to Plymouth. Why would anyone from Looe, Tideford, St German's or a host of other places head to Liskeard when for another 10 minutes in the car they could be in the city?
Liskeard isn't short of good shops. Barnecutt's Bakery is second to none, Goldsworthy's ironmonger has the best cook shop around, there's an excellent book shop, a great cafe called Bean, an up-market independent boutique, craft supplier, butcher, fishmonger, greengrocer and many more independent retailers – along with a large Co-op, Boots and Oxfam, library, heritage centre and museum. Yet despite a respectable choice, it's not enough to entice large crowds. So what's to be done?
Shopping guru Mary Portas thinks she has the answer and has been working with shopkeepers to look at ways to improve trade, generate interest and encourage punters to give the place another chance. She organised a mass clean-up of the streets and favours filling the empty premises, opening late on Fridays and creating a co-operative approach to promotions. So far it has proved a positive gesture, bringing retailers together to work for the same goal.
In October more than 150 volunteers scrubbed and painted Fore Street, as a Portas film crew captured the action for a Channel 4 series due to be screened early next year.
As part of the initiative, one of several "Love Liskeard" events was held at the weekend, with carol singers, Father Christmas, lanterns and chestnut roasting. It was a great success. But was it enough? Are Ms Portas's initiatives merely tinkering at the edges? After all, it's nearly Christmas. Can the same enthusiasm be generated on a wet Saturday in February? I somehow doubt it.
Perhaps Liskeard's only hope is to offer its potential patrons a product or service they can't get elsewhere. Lostwithiel has its antique shops, while Looe has become a favourite of foodies. What might Liskeard's unique selling point be? Strip clubs? Casinos? Stag nights? Maybe not. How about a cinema? It would definitely set it apart from its near rivals. Site a multiplex slap bang in the middle – not on the outskirts but in the centre. Then scrap parking charges all year and watch the town fill up. It's too late for half measures. What Liskeard needs is a radical rethink – and the only attraction with any chance of appealing across age, taste and fashion is a good cinema.
Town councillor Sandra Preston first mooted the idea on the site of the old Carlton Suite nightclub a few years ago – and her vision remains valid. Liskeard Town Council ought to be actively wooing promoters. After all, the cinema-less catchment area is vast, encompassing the south coast, the eastern moor, as far north as Launceston and west to Bodmin.
The result for the town of such an initiative would be a daily influx of visitors – mainly in the evenings, but also at weekends and in school holidays. Liskeard would also become more attractive to holidaymakers – particularly on wet days. The associated knock-on trade generated by a solid all-year-round attraction could be enough to pull it out of the economic mire. It's a Dragon's Den no-brainer. Anyone with the money of Duncan Bannatyne, Theo Paphitis or Deborah Meaden, ought to be saying: "I'm in!"