Chesterfield Civic Society recently hosted a public meeting to discuss "the way forward" for Chesterfield's town centre.
There is an acceptance that out-of-town shopping, large supermarkets, the demise of department stores, Covid, the increased cost of living and on-line shopping have all impacted on most town centres and our habits are unlikely to return to what they were. People like the convenience of driving up close to the supermarket door and obtaining almost everything they need.
Oddly they then wonder why - as they all say - "town's not what it used to be"..............they're right town isn't as busy as it used to be because people now choose to buy over 30% of goods online and to shop out-of-town, that, in turn, threatens the viability of the remaining shops. As Dom Stevens of Destination Chesterfield pointed out: "Nostalgia won't stop change!"
So - assuming that people value their town centre and the recent Civic Society meeting suggests they do - we need to find new ways to draw people back. Currently, nationally, two thirds of visits to town centres are for other than retail. We need to find yet more non-retail reasons to attract back visitors:
The centre needs to be visually attractive, well maintained, have greenery and develop attractions that will entice families into the town such as water features for youngsters to play in during warm weather. Leisure businesses need to be attracted to stop Chesterfield residents travelling to Sheffield to play indoor golf, electronic darts and trampolining - to name just three of the activities on offer elsewhere.
The re-design of the market area will retain a core fixed area to cater for the regular traders and free up the remaining space for new initiatives. We need to look at ways of bringing artisan makers into the town to create an opportunity to develop their business but also immediately they become an attraction to visitors.
High rents ( often set many years ago when the economy was very different) need to be moderated but for most properties this is in the hands private landlords and not of the Council. No start-up business can afford to furnish new premises and pay huge rents when they are starting out.............maybe a separate area for start-up independent businesses is required. How about a late night on Vicar Lane so that those that work can visit when it suits them?
We need to look to better connect with Ravenside to make the two areas feel as one, of course the owners fining those that then walk into town makes that ambition harder. Lisa Hopkinson of Transition Chesterfield rightly pointed out the need for better integrated public transport and, ideally, a transport hub - most likely as part of the "station masterplan"
We should continue to encourage quality housing (ideally family homes) in the central area in order to create a community vibe which in turn would support local businesses - this is the norm in Europe, lets start by encouraging the owners to convert the upper floors of shops. Let's develop stronger links with Derby University and maybe others in order to grow the student numbers and encourage the creation of halls of residence; immediately the town would develop a livelier feel.
Culture is a very misunderstood word but we need to recognise that there is little currently on offer; let's ask the public where we should site say three murals and what they should depict, let's develop walking trails that recognise our history and maybe even look for sponsorship to create a fun animal sculpture trail (Sheffield has tried elephants, the Yorkshire Coast has 42 giant puffins and Ipswich had 40 owls last Summer) that would bring in many visitors. Ask yourself why are Buxton, Belper and Wirksworth home to so many artists? There's no reason why Derbyshire's largest town can't emulate their success by by working hard to create a welcoming cultural mood.
Let's discuss with the NHS if they can bring any new hospital units into the town so that appointments are easier and they drive visits to the centre.
The cost of parking seemed a major issue at the meeting. The Liberal Democrats introduced free off-peak parking for residents; we'd look to identify new ways to improve the parking offer.
The answer is never to do more of the same but to think differently if we are to succeed in bringing more life back to a centre that has suffered serious setbacks. Neil Johnson from the council highlighted the fact that only 9% of Chesterfield people who shop do so in the town centre. All of us need to realise that by staying away from the centre we're making it harder for traders to keep going in these difficult times. Let's improve the walking routes into town - apparently shoppers that arrive on foot spend up to six times more than those that arrive by car.
Please we all need to show all the traders know that we value their efforts and back them and the many and varied attractions hosted by the town centre.
Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet member for the Town Centre and Visitor Economy