This time last year, the Square Routes project and work by United Utilities was throwing Lancaster city centre into chaos. One year on, GAYLE ROUNCIVELL looks at the progress that has been made
A year ago, Lancaster city centre was suffering as shoppers were put off by months of roadworks and improvement work designed to revitalise the heart of the city.
The Square Routes project included resurfacing and redesigning parts of the main shopping area around Market Square, Market Street, Penny Street and Cheapside. New signage and seating was also incorporated in the scheme.
The work – which included changes to the layout of the outdoor Charter Market – was implemented following extensive public consultation and research among traders and retailers.
The work was completed towards the end of last year, in time for the traditional Christmas shopping season.
A new camera installed in Lancaster to help study footfall patterns has now shown around 185,000 are using the city centre in an average week.
On the busiest days each month, an average of around 40,000 people walked along Penny Street.
While numbers dropped during April and May, June’s total footfall of almost 950,000 showed the number of people visiting Lancaster was starting to pick up as the warmer months approached.
However, the figures show no significant increase on a Wednesday – market day – compared with other days of the week.
The footfall camera has been paid for by Lancaster City Council and Lancaster BID (Business Improvement District) and both organisations are monitoring the situation.
Liz Hickingbotham, manager of Lancaster BID, said: “We are looking to research it in more detail.
“The camera is currently located by Lush at Horseshoe Corner and monitors people passing along Penny Street.
“We are currently in the process of putting in another camera on Market Street, possibly near to the junction with New Street.
“We need to take care not to draw the wrong conclusion from what it means because this is new information, but if there are no more people coming into town on a Wednesday [than other weekdays] then that is interesting.
“I don’t think anybody expected that to be the case.”
Coun Janice Hanson, Lancaster City Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for regeneration, said: “Cameras are being installed as part of the council’s commitment to monitoring the health of its town centres and evaluate whether strategies and initiatives to drive increases in footfall are effective.
“The first camera was installed in March this year and without the availability of comparison figures, it is impossible to come to any accurate conclusions on any particular shopping trends until long term data is gathered and analysed. A whole range of factors will also need to be taken into consideration including the weather, disruption to travel, school holiday patterns and core working hours to name but a few.
“What the council will also be interested in is what impact the Charter Market has on footfall patterns within the city centre because this will provide a source of evidence that will help us best manage the market for the benefit of all in the future. The council will also discuss a contribution to the installation and monitoring of a similar system for Morecambe town centre should the emerging Morecambe BID be interested in the application and results of the technology.”
Lancaster District Chamber of Commerce manager Vicky Lofthouse said feedback had been generally positive since the city centre work was completed.
“There have been some phenomenal improvements over the last year,” she said. “There has been destruction and it’s had an effect on footfall and trade but we are in the recovery phase now and are looking to the future to continue to put things in place.
“The city can only go from strength to strength.”
“From the Chamber and retailer point of view the feedback we have received has been very positive.
“Having the new monolith and signage and paving has been great. It has improved the aesthetics of the centre which is helping considerably with visitors and the general feel of the place.”
Mrs Lofthouse said work is continuing on improving the city centre, including looking at highlighting some of the smaller businesses based in alleyways and ginnels around the town.
She said: “This is as a direct result of feedback from the retailers. They feel they need to be greater enhanced, and we are working with them on that.”
St Nicholas Arcades centre manager Jerry North, who is also chair of the Chamber of Commerce retail sector, admitted there were concerns about a drop in footfall figures.
“The footfall demonstrates that there’s no rise on Wednesdays,” he said.
“That has changed – it used to be noticeably raised on Wednesdays.
“Last year the figures were blurred because of the effects of the Square Routes projects. It had a big effect.
“But since the start of the year it doesn’t seem to have come back.
“We should be seeing big improvements because of the disruptions last year.
“Now things have settled down and the new market layout has been established since January, they should be reaping the benefits yet that is demonstrably not the case. Every retailer knows that you have got to keep your offer fresh and it looks like the draw that we used to have has gone away.
“They will be seeing the same people walking past every week – we have got a hardcore of regular customers, especially the market customers.
“If they are only appealing to a certain group then that’s a dying market.”
Mr North suggested a further review be carried out to look again at the situation.
“A lot of the high street retailers are disappointed because they put a lot of effort into the review,” he said.
“Perhaps that needs to be looked at to see if there has been an improvement. The danger is that if things don’t pick up, the shops won’t want the market there if there is no benefit to them.”
Mrs Lofthouse said the Charter Market continued to be monitored by both the Chamber and BID.
“It’s something we feel can be used to greater enhance the shopping experience in terms of its layout and location and we will continue to fight to have it improved,” she said.
“At the moment it’s not necessarily an asset that’s drawing people into the city and it does need managing and enhancing and that’s what we are working towards.”
Market stall holder Andrew Long said last year’s changes in the city centre – along with other factors such as the ongoing traffic issues around Lancaster as well as the lengthy sewerage work carried out by United Utilities – have affected his trade dramatically over the last year.
Mr Long’s craft stall, situated outside JD Sports, was reduced in size as part of the market redesign.
He said: “As a direct result it has cost us at least £7,500 a year in income – about £200 a week. We can’t display everything any more, so the stall doesn’t have the same impact. We had a growing, successful business and it’s been ruined.
“Our lives have been turned upside down. We have less than 50 per cent of our former trading area.”
Mr Long said he has opened a shop in Slip-Inn Lane near to his stall in a bid to make up some of the shortfall.
He said problems with the traffic around Lancaster caused by the M6 link road work is also having a negative effect on trade for both shops and market traders.
He said: “The traffic is causing people not to come into Lancaster.
“It’s all people hear about and that severely impacts them coming in.
“Lancaster as a whole is suffering as a result of factors outside of our control.
“I think the new road will be a good thing eventually because people who will want to come into town will be able to.”