Why we should make ourselves at home in Southport town centre
It’s time we made ourselves more at home in Southport town centre. No, literally.
It was sad to see Debenhams on Lord Street close its doors for the final time last month. It was one among 22 of the firm’s stores across the UK to be closed, so its loss was not due to specific Southport issues, but national retail ones.
It was still a shock when Beales, further along Lord Street, then announced it would soon follow suit.
What to do with these monoliths? They have happy memories for us all. As well as recent times, they also remind us of the great ‘Are You Being Served’ days of Broadbents, Boothroyds and other department stores.
Our high streets are changing rapidly. The UK has lost over 100,000 retail jobs this year already.
But it doesn’t mean they won’t thrive – or even become better than they were. We just have to make sure that we do what we can to make sure they change, that they are more fit for purpose for the 21st Century, and not the 19th Century, when much of Lord Street’s magnificent architecture was created.
Which is why it is time more of us moved in.
It is unrealistic to expect that we are going to be able to replace like with like. Mike Ashley may have invested more than £3million in bringing a substantial Sports Direct-led retail transformation along Tulketh Street, which has been a tremendous success. New brands such as Flannels, USC and Everlast have been great additions to our town centre.
However, we shouldn’t expect Mr Ashley to add his House Of Fraser brand into his Southport portfolio any time soon. The former BHS department store on nearby Chapel Street has already spent the past five years trying to entice prospective new tenants.
So what will the Debenhams, Beales and BHS buildings become?
Lord Street is one of the longest shopping streets in the UK. It is also one of the most historic, elegant and unique, whose tree-lined boulevards allegedly inspired similar streets in Paris following a stay here by Napoleon III.
It is a beautiful place to shop, but it is also a beautiful place to live.
I will admit my bias here. Twenty years ago I lived on Lord Street, inside the beautiful Westminster Mansions buildings.
They were very happy times. I lived next door to the old ABC / Odeon Cinema, which has subsequently made way for the stylish Vincent Hotel. Southport Train Station was a short walk away if needed. I used to walk out of my front door and straight into the many superb shops, cafes and restaurants outside.
Debenhams, Beales, BHS and their like now present magnificent opportunities to bring more people into town.
It would be fantastic to see as much empty first floor and second floor town centre space as possible converted into stylish living spaces.
And not just homes. Our town needs more serviced apartments. We are crying out for flexible home working spaces. We would welcome more good quality family accommodation or hotel beds.
Perhaps, on the ground floors, the gradual erosion of big, national chain stores may open new opportunities for more unique, local, independent start-up businesses to flourish.
As local residents, we have to play our part in this. We can’t moan about businesses closing unless we all truly embrace the Shop Local ethos and put our independents first.
Seeing a growing number of people living in our town centres will bring greater footfall for those firms. It will bring a particular boost for the superb cafe culture which has sprung up along Lord Street in recent years.
That will also create new debates over how much traffic is desirable along Lord Street, as well as sparking new demand for amenities such as good quality Wi-Fi and broadband. We have to be ready for those discussions, and we must approach them with open minds.
With Lord Street’s built environment becoming ever more important, as places in which people want to live as well as just shop or eat, demand will also grow to repair and restore our existing heritage. Southport’s Townscape Heritage Project, which has recently secured substantial government funding, will be the start of that process.
We may be in the process of losing some of our town’s, and some of the UK’s, much-loved shops. It is a painful process.
We can’t start yearning for the past and crossing our fingers that any like-for-like replacements will somehow be found to fill the gap.
But if we are creative, brave and forward-thinking, we may be able to start imagining a new Lord Street and a new Southport town centre. They may look very different to how they did before, but we can also create the right conditions for them to become busier than we have seen them for a long time.
That certainly sounds like somewhere I would love to live.
WHAT do you think? Join the debate in our Stand Up For Southport group on Facebook.