What can we do to improve Blackpool town centre?

Empty stores  on Bank Hey Street.
Empty stores on Bank Hey Street.
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Traders in Blackpool have voiced their concern over the safety of the town centre - and the future of their shops.

One said their business has to keep its Church Street doors locked during business hours to stop smash-and-grab thieves, while another said their customers are often too frightened to shop in the resort.

Richard Lefton, owner of Lefton's Furniture, is 'angry over roadworks and a lack of support from Blackpool council

Richard Lefton, owner of Lefton's Furniture, is 'angry over roadworks and a lack of support from Blackpool council

It comes just months after bosses at Ethan Hull Salon in Topping Street said they were quitting the town centre after a raid by burglars, saying Blackpool is now too ‘scary’ for female customers.

The burglars, who fled with armfuls of GHD hair straighteners, were never caught.

Sirge Smart from Mankind, a designer menswear shop that has been open for nearly 30 years, said his ‘main concern is the wrong type of person in the town centre’.

“A lot of my customers are frightened to go into town,” he said. “Until we sort out the drink and drugs problem, nobody will come.

“A lot of my customers are frightened to go into town, until we sort out the drink and drugs problem, nobody will come.

“People used to come from Manchester and Leeds to shop in Blackpool. When I was a boy, I used to walk down Central Drive at 3am. Now I wouldn’t walk down there at three in the afternoon.

“A lot of our customers pull up outside, buy what they want, and go home.”

Paul Lewis from Flute Hairdressing, next door but one, said: “All morning you see the drug addicts walking down to the soup kitchens. We tend to keep the doors locked and only open them when a regular turns up.”

Mr Lewis said he no longer sees police officers or PCSOs on the streets, and said nobody was caught for trying to smash their way into his business last year, despite a witness calling 999.

Hundreds of officers have been lost across Lancashire since 2008, which police and crime commissioner Clive Grunshaw has previously blamed on government cuts to funding.

And last year, crime soared by more than 16 per cent in Blackpool, figures revealed.

In total, 115,775 offences were recorded in the county, almost 13,700 up on the previous year.

Some types, like robbery, violence, sex offences, and stalking and harassment, all rose by more than 20 per cent.

Only two categories of crime – drug offences and bicycle thefts – showed a fall across Lancashire.

Mr Grunshaw said the stats showed ‘the increasing levels of demand our officers are dealing with, as the number of recorded crimes continues to rise’.

Rachel Baines, chairman of the county’s police union, said: “This worrying rise in crime will only add to this pressure.”

Blackpool continues to experience more crime than anywhere else in Lancashire, with 20,341 incidents recorded during the year – a 16.3 per cent increase.

“Lancashire Police work around the clock to protect those who live and work here, in the face of what is a growing and increasingly complex demand on the service,” Mr Grunshaw previously said.

“Our officers continue to do more with less.”

Crime was not the only concern raised by traders, however.

Mr Smart said the quality of shops has got ‘worse and worse’ over the past 30 years, and said the town needs to be ‘cleaned up’, with more independent shops brought in to entice shoppers back.

“I feel so passionate about the town and I see it going to rack and ruin,” he said. “You have the Prom and all these festivals, but you move one street back and it’s horrible.”

“You can put all the fancy buildings up, but I’m afraid the people make the town.”

Mr Lewis, whose salon has been open in its current premises for around 20 years, said that, while he once saw an ‘enormous’ passing trade, now he can go a week without a customer walking in without a booking.

He also warned he could be forced to close in the next two years if a 100 per cent relief on his business rates is rescinded, with it recently being ramped up to a pre-discount rate of around £8,000-a-year.

The government and the council should work together, and meet with retailers, to help improve the town, he said.

Richard Lefton, from Lefton’s Furniture Superstore in General Street, one of the oldest shops in the resort, accused the council of failing to attract shoppers and big name firms, and failing to back retailers.

He said: “If, financially, I could walk away quite well off tomorrow, these doors would be shut, I’m that annoyed, truthfully.

“Over the last probably seven or eight years, it’s become more and more difficult. There’s various issues here. Initially it was out-of-town retail parks, followed by the internet.

“But as a long established family business, we have, to a degree, tackled these issues.

“The one thing we are struggling with over the last few years is the lack of help we get from the local council at key times of the year, like the January sales, et cetera.”

Mr Lefton said his older customers are often put off travelling into the town centre by roadworks, with a number of major diversions put in place in recent years.

He said work needs to be better planned, with his trade down year-on-year by around 25 per cent, and said others are feeling the effects too. One fellow business owner said his trade had dropped by around half, he said.

Mr Lefton criticised the controversial tram extension work, saying: “They said, ‘It’s the experience’. If you take yourself off to San Francisco, you know before you go there are trams and you know what experience you will get.

“What experience is it to get a tram that goes down Talbot Road? It’s delusional.

“People talk about experience but the place looks like a pig sty. If you are going to do things, you have to do it properly.”

Mr Lefton said he spent £10,000 on the outside of his shop earlier this year, and applied for a share of the £1m funding set aside for resort stores to improve their property fronts.

But, because he is not based in Topping Street, Deansgate, Edward Street, or part of Church Street or Talbot Road, he said he was not eligible.

And he said he can’t get involved with the Blackpool Business Improvement District (BID), again because he’s outside the catchment area.

He said the council should now appoint a director for retail, like it has a director for tourism, and should set up a meeting with resort shop owners.

“The council needs to sit down and look at a plan forward,” he said. “There should be something where we discuss getting people to shop in Blackpool.

“We have people that are head of tourism and everything, but not the town centre, talking to national companies.”

Late last year, traders hit by roadworks won a battle for free parking over the festive period, with charges in Central car park waived after business owners said the disruption led to a massive drop in revenue.

And Mr Lefton added: “How much would it cost them to put free parking in all year round? They have more car parks than they know what to do with.”

Blackpool Council made £3.6m through parking in 2016-17.

More could also be done to attract new businesses in, Mr Lefton also said.

Mr Lefton said: “The council could say, ‘If you are prepared to stay here for a minimum of five years, we will give you three years rent-free or half-price’.

“They need to entice. If they get two or three, more will come.

“What I think should happen is members of the council should have an open meeting and invite retailers. But they won’t do that because they don’t want to hear the truth.

“The place looks disgusting to me, and needs tidying up. They need to get their fingers out before the town shuts its doors.”

The police view

Insp David Wilson, from Blackpool Police, said his team of ‘more than 15 constables and PCSOs’, based at Bonny Street, work to keep the shopping hub a ‘safe and attractive place to visit’, on top of the response officers who also attend incidents.

He said: “We hold twice weekly multi-agency operations around the town centre, aimed at combating anti-social behaviour and signposting the vulnerable to services, on top of patrols that take place daily.

“We will shortly be opening a new operating base within the town hall [with the police station set to move from Bonny Street to Marton], with a public enquiry desk on Clifton Street.

“We are committed to finding new approaches to combat drug dealing and anti-social behaviour, and we have embedded a team of new officers within the team to tackle long-term issues such as street sex work, begging and vulnerability.

“We rely on community intelligence to tackle drug dealing, and as demonstrated on our recent week of action around Claremont, we will act when that intelligence is available.

“I would ask the public to have the confidence to highlight issues that concern them.”

The council view

Coun Mark Smith, the council’s regeneration and economic development chief, said: “Blackpool itself has seen growth in the last few months with several independent retailers opening in the town centre, and the town will see the development of a further extension to the Houndshill later this year which is extremely positive.”

The deputy leader of Blackpool Council, Coun Gillian Campbell, said: “We have well-documented plans for improving the town centre, evidenced by the number of development projects that have already been completed or will come to fruition over the next two years.

“These include the development of a new conference centre at the Winter Gardens; new town centre hotels; a cinema alongside additional retail and restaurant facilities at the Houndshill; an integrated transport interchange at North Station; and the improvement of key streets in the town centre through the Quality Corridors scheme.

“All of this is much-needed investment that will improve the visual appeal of the town centre, and give businesses and shoppers more compelling reasons to come to the town centre.

“The council does not employ a head of retail, but plays an active role in the town centre BID which was set up several years ago with a specific remit to improve and promote the town centre.”