Recent announcements by major retail names in the UK such as Debenhams, Boots, and Marks & Spencer to close large numbers of stores in towns and cities across the country demonstrate the scale of the challenge they are facing.
It’s not just major national names that have gone. Locally Canterbury has lost large independents such as Nasons, leaving a large question mark hanging over the future of another significant and high-profile High Street site.
The decision to close stores has been driven by a combination of factors, including:
…and as we all know Canterbury will shortly see the loss of its Debenhams stores.
A further site – 15-16 Guildhall Street – is under a lease with Debenhams and is currently trading as a Cotswold Outdoor shop, with the proposal that the ground floor is retained for retail sales and the upper floors are transformed into six apartments.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Canterbury each year to enjoy the medieval city, and a key part of that is the retail offering. Although there would be a net reduction in the amount of retail space due to the conversion of the upper floors of Debenhams into residential, the ground floor would be better suited for modern retail businesses.
This in turn would help support a strong and vibrant café culture. If the Debenhams space is to be left vacant for a long period, there is a danger this part of the city would be blighted and the experience of visiting Canterbury undermined, which could impact on other parts of the city’s economy.
One in ten people work in retail, making it the largest private sector employer in the UK. These jobs are as important to Canterbury as they are to Cardiff and Carlisle – and they need to be retained.
It is vital that everything is done to sustain retail space in the city centre – and with it, retail jobs – but the existing layout, and first and second floors of Debenhams are no longer viable for modern retail.
This can be achieved with the current stock, but only if an innovative and forward-thinking approach is adopted to its future use. This could involve the transformation of under-utilised retail space into city centre homes, sitting alongside sustainable retail units to help underpin the local economy.