RIBBLE VALLEY: Town centre economies ‘generally healthy despite rise in empty shops’, councillors believe

Town centres across the Ribble Valley are generally in a healthy state despite a slight rise in the number of empty shops, borough councillors have said.

Clitheroe, Longridge and Whalley were discussed at the latest meeting of Ribble Valley Council’s Economic Development Committee.

Most councillors felt commercial property was still in demand and that a range of factors, including building improvements by landlords, family changes and, in one case, a fire were responsible rather than business closures.

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However they said the situation needed closely watching.

The number of empty units in Clitheroe has risen from 12 to 15.

Director of economic development and planning Nicola Hopkins introduced a report with figures for all vacant commercial town centre properties including shops, cafes and restaurants.

Between March and October 2022, the number of empty units in Clitheroe had risen from 12 to 15. In Longridge the rise was from two to seven. In Whalley, the increase was from zero to one. Monitoring town centres to ensure the vacant units are being filled is of high importance, the report added. No change in visitor (footfall) trends have been noted.

Conservative Coun Ged Mirfin said: “I don’t think we ought to downplay the seriousness of the number of vacancies across the three centres. Although this has not really impacted on Whalley yet, the number of vacancies in Clitheroe is at the second-highest ever, I understand.

“If there’s going to be a sector really impacted by the cost-of-living-crisis then it’s going to be town centres. So I think we need to monitor the situation as closely as possible.

“I know some landlords are working on their properties to make them more attractive for new tenants. But will that be economically beneficial for landlords in the future?

“Clitheroe attracts more-unique or niche businesses. Anyone starting a business in a recession or in difficult economic times deserves to be applauded as a hero for their tenacity and ambition. But we need to keep an eye on empty properties and also the kind of businesses in town centres.”

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However, Conservative Coun Louise Edge, the committee chairwoman, said: “Yes, there has been a higher turnover of units, as referenced with seven units in Clitheroe. And I agree that the situation will need to be very closely monitored. But this is a very useful piece of information and good work is being done.

She added: “I noticed how quickly one town centre site went back to let. That tells me that people still think Clitheroe is a viable place for business.

“We have to be careful about saying the high street is in dramatic trouble. Properties can become vacant for a number of reasons, such as family reasons or fire. Those are quite different reasons to businesses closing down.

“Many shop or business units are run by self-employed people. The circumstances they face now, or in coming months, will probably be different to the last recession. Yes, it may be difficult at times and interest rates will be different to the last recession, but I also think many self-employed people will hang-on by their fingertips and adapt. At the moment, the market [the property and wider economic market] is deciding and the market will bring new businesses to our town centres.”

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Regarding Longridge, Conservative Coun Judith Clark said: “People would love to see the Palace cinema revived and we can only hope someone puts some money into that business to get it going again. On the high street, there was a big fire at Swifts and now they are trying to sort that. I wouldn’t say the situation in Longridge is bad. In fact, I’d say there is a reasonably positive vibe in Longridge.”

Coun. Edge added: “I agree. That’s the feedback I get from my business contacts.”

Lib Dem Coun. Stewart Fletcher said: “I think the issue is with some of the key ‘gateway’ buildings which set the tone for Clitheroe. I’m thinking of places like the old Piccolino restaurant and units near the Nat West bank building. The council should be looking at these buildings to make sure they meet the needs of the town. Perhaps think about mixed uses with commercial and residential uses. The only we can ensure this is to do some things ourselves.”

Coun. Edge said: “Yes, bank buildings are very important. One is being marketed as a whole building but also as individual offices. I’d like to allow some time to see how things develop.

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“We have lost banks and that’s a shame. But I also understand why banks are making these decisions and we have seen redevelopment of other old bank buildings. So I am encouraged. Also, I would like to spend some time ‘curating’ businesses and approaching them to see if they’d be interested in coming to some of these locations? ”

Coun Mirfin said Clitheroe had lost two major banks in recent years and two national retail chains. He added: “Yes, it’s positive that landlords are making properties more attractive, But the real test will be if new businesses can make it through the next three years? If they can, it’s likely they will stay. If not, there will be considerable churn on the high street, which concerns me.

“I’d like to see us continue to communicate with high street businesses and get a four-monthly survey about footfall (visitor) numbers and other things. ”

Coun. Edge said the borough’s economic officers were holding regular sessions and getting good attendance from local business people.

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Regarding commercial property owned by landlords, she added: “If these were for sale, I’d be alarmed. But they are for rent. That is a key difference. That is a massive driver to fill these properties. If some properties need doing-up, so be it.”

Conservative Coun Simon Hore agreed and said there were positives from town centre change. He said: “Some ‘churn’ can be a good thing to refresh high streets. Banks see converting their premises to smaller units as an opportunity because nobody wants to buy such big old buildings. I think we should praise companies which are doing something. There’s nothing worse than seeing derelict buildings, such as pubs, standing empty. We still have lots of pubs which are derelict.

He added: “I think Longridge is doing some good things and it also has a new restaurant.”

Coun Clark added: “Longridge has lost banks too but they have become new businesses. Old bank buildings can characterful and lend themselves to being great venues for new businesses.”

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