Chamber chief is going out on a high

Ann Morris who is retiring as chief executive of Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.
Ann Morris who is retiring as chief executive of Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.

During her 24 years with the chamber of commerce, Ann Morris has been a vocal supporter of the proposed Heysham-M6 link road.

With delay opon delay hitting the scheme, she could have been forgiven for thinking she would be long retired before the road finally got the green light, let along got built.

But just two weeks before she retired at Easter, the Government gave the £123m project the go-ahead.

“It will be of great benefit, especially to places like Carnforth,” she tells me.

“There are obvious benefits for hauliers but also for tourism with the improved accessibility of the peninsula.

“At the moment our accessibility is a deterrent.

“The new road would also strengthen our case when it comes to deciding where to locate new nuclear power stations, when the two at Hyysham come up for decommissioning.”

But Ann, 61, speaking as she prepares to hand over the reins to Claire Chapman, stresses that the road in itself “isn’t the whole solution, but part of a package”.

And she still believes a second bridge across the River Lune will be needed, not least to improve accessibility to St George’s Quay, where there are plans for hundreds of new homes, as well as offices.

Ann identifies other ingredients of a package she believes will boost the district as the plans for Lancaster Castle, the quayside regeneration and the £100m British Land/Centros retail scheme along Lancaster’s canal corridor.

“All these things can improve employment opportunities,” says Ann.

“There is a strong possibility that they will also encourage new businesses to come here.”

Ann describes the Lancaster canal corridor scheme as a “major opportunity”.

She has met members of the development team and says they hope to have new plans ready within 12-18 months.

“The developers have made a commitment, even in this economic climate, to invest, and we should be encouraging it,” she says.

“I think it could help prevent a lot of people who live in the district from going elsewhere to do there shopping.

“There’s something like a 40 per cent leakage of people who shop elsewhere because there is not the retail choice here. If people go somewhere to do a day’s shopping, they might also visit an attraction, have a coffee and have some lunch.

“We are missing out on all that if people are going elsewhere.”

Ann does not believe the scheme would harm the existing city centre and says there will remain a place for independent shops both in the existing centre and within the new development.

“It’s a case of having more to offer and being more of an attraction,” she explains.

“For as long as I can remember people have been talking about us needing a big department store.

“I can understand people having concerns and it’s difficult to look into the crystal ball.

“But the developers would not be investing if they thought the scheme was going to empty the rest of the city.”

Ann says the plans for Lancaster Castle, which include a boutique hotel and a museu of crime and punishment represent the biggest tourism opportunity for the area.

“Everyone acknowledges the importance of the castle opening to the public and the opportunities that will bring,” she says.

“People will want to visit for weekend stays and we need to make sure we put together a terrific marketing campaign.

“The castle is one of our best kept secrets but something like that is no good if you just sit on it and don’t tell people.”

The chamber has played a big part in helping to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in a poll to decide whether to designate the city centre as a Business Improvement District (BID).

Firms with a rateable value more than £10,000 will pay an extra 1.5 per cent on their business rates. The cash will go into a pot to fund improvements to the trading environment which could include new signage and street furniture, clean-ups and marketing campaigns.

“It will be spent on projects that the businesses themselves believe will encourage more people into our city,” says Ann.

At the same time, she says she would like to see the Government provide rate relief for businesses, as well as cutting VAT to help encourage people to spend.

“Business rates are too high,” she says. “I know that sounds hypocritical when we have established the BID but there is generally too big a burden on business.”

Ann believes Claire Chapman, whose background includes time with the North West Development Agency, can look ahead to a bright future, despite the difficult economic times.

“The time to invest is often when things are slow and the area is on the cusp of so many major regeneration projects.

“And if people can see these things happening that can be infectious and create other new development opportunities.”