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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Farewell Debenhams

John Woodman

Demise of a slew of stores owned under the unlamented 'Arcadia' corporate umbrella with its sea cruising owners - well advised to stay far from these shores, is regrettably capped this week with announcement of the closure of the Debenhams retailing business. Very much an integral feature in many UK town centres and shopping developments, Debenhams have provided an invaluable quality retail anchor operation to shopping centres up and down the country. Blackpool is no exception with its Hounds Hill site losing the last quality department store on the Fylde coast - saving of course M&S bravely holding out near Church Street.

Lament the passing of a British town centre icon.

The resort's retail offer has suffered from a continuing string of department store closures over several decades, each one fracturing the wholesome image of the town's commercial centre. RHO Hills and Lewis's with its impressive honeycomb frontage on the promenade being the most notable examples. C&A with BHS being two equally prominent retail anchors earlier forced into retrenchment to the detriment of the resort. The latter being replaced with the dumbed down inventory of a downmarket trader. Even the friendly 'Woolly's' was caught up with the corporate and offshore financial shenanigans that seemingly bedevil once successful brands. None of this being in the competence of local managers or staff, such is the sting in the tail of ownership in the grip of offshore financing manipulation.

Of course changing habits and intrusive trends have made their impact on the once traditional town centre 'shop' - aided and abetted by property developers eyeing up market opportunities for turning large sites (especially greenfield ones) into yet another retailing 'experience'. The once calm surrounds of Thornton once filled with full employment of 'civil servants' in nearby Norcross is about to be uprooted by an unwanted and undesirable retailing blight which will see the popular and busy Marks & Spencer food store in Cleveleys removed to a 'greenfield' site devoid of transport infrastructure and requiring taxis or several bus rides to access - assuming one is not driving one's own car to and from the locale.

The loss of the Debenham's anchor business brand at the Hounds Hill centre will be a hard act to follow - or to fix in today's fast changing retailing trends. We are told that online purchasing and the now prevalent delivery service of global companies is destined to edge out the high street experience with evidence already now impacting on town centres large and small throughout the country. The unfair playing field on which bricks and mortar trading is obliged to cough up significant annual taxes to local authorities whilst online businesses turning over billions are free from business tax on their trading turnover (at least by local authorities) quite evidently is a tax imposition too far in today's world.

No doubt the Hounds Hill operation will find a further dumbed down business to fill the pivotal space to be vacated by Debenhams. The result will be a further repeat of the transformation of the classic Woolworth's building and equally depressing experience of British Home Stores (BHS) property being turned over to yet more dumbed down retailing. Where once the standout Lewis's store once stood adding architectural inspiration - we now have a further low end of the market trading business offering yet more bulk imports from China. Such is the transformation of Blackpool's town centre over the past three decades - no wonder residents opt to head for the out of town retailing to be found at Mereside where parking comes free of yet further local taxation. Thus reducing further the 'footfall' so beloved of developers and absentee landlords, not to mention Council planners seeking positive transformation of the town's central core.

In that regard there are brave efforts underway with the first tangible result in Talbot Square where a classy new hotel structure has filled the site once occupied by Yates Wine Lodge; plus appearance of tram tracks on Talbot Road to a second site undergoing transformation. Here a further newbuild hotel and matching office scheme will overlook the new terminal point for trams running to North Station (after sixty years). Hopefully this tram terminus will gain a stylish appearance beyond the bargain basement knock down shelters which are an absolutely deplorable feature of the coastal light rail service.

At least we still have a smart transport operation local public ownership and forward looking staff - distinctive in every way from the rest of Britain.


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