RUNNING a retail business can be tough, and it is particularly sad, not least for those directly involved - as in the recently reported difficulties at Maya Maya in Wainwright’s Yard, Pandora in Stricklandgate and Beales department store - when closure looms.

Behind arresting statements such as the one quoted in the Gazette on February 6 that "Kendal is dying" lies, however, an altogether more complex story.

The reality is that Kendal isn’t dying - far from it - but, like every other high street in the UK, it is changing.

There is no doubt our town centres are subject to unprecedented pressure and that change is now the reality for all high streets. Across the country, including destinations like the King’s Road and Kensington High Street in London, towns and cities are having to face and address major challenges.

It is widely recognised that traditional retail is shrinking by 20 per cent. At the root of this lies a change in shopping habits, not least the ongoing and increasingly rapid rise of online shopping. While it is hugely positive if local people shop locally, it can no longer be a given that they will.

South Lakeland District Council is acutely aware of this, but it is also important that in addressing this serious issue we avoid unwarranted conjecture. The number of empty shops in Kendal has remained relatively consistent over the past six years, with a number of new businesses opening as well as closing.

There were only three more empty shops in 2019 than in 2014, and we saw a net reduction in empties by four during the last six months of 2019. There remains considerable interest in our vacant shops and we work closely with building owners and their agents to bring new businesses to our town.

There are challenging conditions for retailers which are not all within our control; for instance, rents charged by private landlords and business rates set by central government. We do, though, understand the value of hands-on support and, by working with partners such as Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, we look to ensure that new and existing businesses are able to access free business support and advice.

There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit here and the number of start-ups in South Lakeland is consistently the highest in Cumbria.

SLDC also works closely with both Kendal BID and Kendal Futures, with representation at board level, to deliver pragmatic solutions. We are taking a fully collaborative approach to strategic solutions through both the council’s Kendal Town Centre Strategy and Kendal Futures' Kendal Vision, and have bid for, and been chosen, as one of the first towns to take part in the Government’s High Streets Task Force. We are also one of two partner councils in the groundbreaking pilot project Great Place: Lakes and Dales.

These are all ambitious projects, which, while not shying away from the reality of the challenges facing town centre economies, will focus on how to deliver sustainable solutions for the 21st century - including how to ensure Kendal town centre is a vibrant place to live, visit, enjoy and shop.

In addition to its shops, Kendal also has amazing attractions, but much work, and considerable, multi-million pound investment is already being undertaken to enhance what is on offer, with major planned developments at Abbot Hall and the Brewery Arts Centre.

The town has a vibrant and internationally recognised festival and events programme. Torchlight, the Comic Art Festival and Kendal Mountain Festival don’t just showcase the town to the world, but also bring in many millions of pounds into the local economy over just a matter of a few days apiece. They also attract considerable footfall, which is so critical for retail and hospitality businesses.

SLDC continues to take a balanced approach to addressing the needs of all who use Kendal town centre. Councillors realised the closure of the common land at New Road to vehicles could put pressure on parking elsewhere in Kendal and, following representations from users of New Road, Kendal BID and others, a package of parking options was approved for existing car parks we manage, to help alleviate these pressures. These include a range of much-reduced parking tariffs based around early-bird parking and charges as low a 20p per hour. We have also secured additional parking at Canal Head and planning permission for a new facility by Parkside Road.

I do recognise that much of what is outlined here will be of little comfort to those facing an imminent loss of livelihood, but South Lakeland’s economy remains buoyant and our district has been listed as the seventh best place to live in the UK, so there are still very positive prospects within Kendal and its hinterland.

Cllr Robin Ashcroft

Economy, culture and leisure portfolio holder, SLDC