I like Lichfield. I enjoy living in the city.

It isn’t perfect, but then nowhere is. Indeed, some of its failings are universal and not just confined to the three-spired city – bad drivers, bus stop induced pavement rage, feckless youth, they’re all things you can endure anywhere these days.

But in the eight(ish) years that it has been home, I’ve enjoyed being a Lichfieldian and always look forward to coming back whenever I’ve been away…apart from negotiating that ridiculous island outside Morrisons on Beacon Street, the one which half the motorists who approach it seem to ignore completely.

Rogue traffic islands aside, there is much to be said about Lichfield life.

But the city is on the cusp of what could be a major change. The revised plans for a £100m redevelopment of part of the city centre have gone on show, the Friarsgate scheme is heralded by supporters as securing the future of Lichfield.

I find myself perched on the fence (not the new one around Minster Pool, obviously). I’m unsure which way to fall.

I could find myself supporting the arguments for Friarsgate and the new opportunities and businesses it could well attract to Lichfield.

But, equally, the whole scheme fills me with unease. Is Lichfield selling what remains of its soul on a shaky promise of a golden future, represented by an identikit city centre redevelopment that could plonk you down just about anywhere in the UK?

I want a Lichfield of history and character, interesting alleys and intriguing walkways, independent retailers providing everything you need to survive the daily grind and lots of things you never knew you wanted but can’t actually live without.

Does Lichfield have too much character to turn into an identikit city? Photo by @RachelCreative

But I’m also aware that such a vision could be a luxury no-one can afford these days. Times are tough for retailers and likely to get tougher, a brand spanking shopping and leisure hub could just be the thing to keep the city solvent and attractive.

That is attractive in an economic sense, rather than aesthetic. The new city centre development might draw the punters in, but it could help spirit away the charm and atmosphere of the historic city itself.

“Come to Lichfield – you could be just about anywhere in the UK” might actually appeal as a marketing slogan these days.

We already have the jumbo-sized Tesco after the city fell under the weight of the supermarket’s campaign to concrete the entire land. The queues suggest Lichfieldians have embraced the unsightly megastore, although I have still yet to set foot inside the building (having backed the anti-Tesco campaign, I still can’t bring myself to darken their door).

Familiarity no longer breeds contempt these days, it actually acts as a comfort blanket.

Step into any Starbucks in the UK and it feels the same, no matter what your location. As we get used to such feelings, we like to them to encompass everything – our TV schedule, our eating habits, our city centre retail experiences.

I despise the cloning of our town and city centres. But if the alternative to a clone town is a ghost town, then do I simply have to suck it up and try not to dwell on it too much?

A few Lichfieldians were discussing Friarsgate and that very point was made – is it a choice between clone town and ghost town? Surely Lichfield is too big a little city to become a ghost town?

The trend of closing shops might suggest otherwise. Then again, the lure of the city’s heritage and the three-spired cathedral might continue to act as a buffer and draw enough visitors in each year to keep the city buoyant, shouldn’t it?

There seems an awful lot of ifs and buts and very few certainties.

If Friarsgate represents the best future Lichfield can expect then I’m depressed. But I’ll also support it as the alternative is…well, what exactly?

These days it seems it is better to be a clone than a ghost.

Although the ghosts of Lichfield do still have a story worth telling.

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12 responses »

  1. RichardB says:

    Really interesting, thought-provoking piece: a lot of people are asking these questions. They’re all valid. But it does seem to be have become fairly widely accepted that Friarsgate – in its monolithic, identikit, Touchwood-lite form – is the only possible answer on offer.

    “The alternative is…what?” you ask. Well, here are a few. None of them offers the easy off-the-peg quick-fix answer of Friarsgate – but it’s be nice to hear them investigated more thoroughly. Just because one developer has set the terms of the debate (pretty much unchallenged), it doesn’t mean that the city and its people have to roll over and accept those terms:

    – a vision for Lichfield that focuses in a determined and energetic fashion on rejuvenating existing retail stock, subsidising rates for good independent businesses, and invests in making existing spaces attractive to the missing major retailers.

    – a “food town”, “book town” or “slow town”: think Ludlow, Hay or Wigtown. Lichfield is attractive (even if it’s never going to be a major tourist honey-pot) and it’s close to some major population centres. It could work – it really could. The basics are already in place: three major festivals and a core of superb small local businesses.

    – a better-designed, more sympathetic Friarsgate. So, if we do really need a new shopping development (and this isn’t just a panicked response to the fact that Lichfield – like most of the western world – currently happens to be in a horrible but temporary recession, and we have good reason to think that the empty units won’t simply refill when peoples’ pockets do) let’s see it done in a way that actually enhances the city. A more varied internal street plan, a broken-up skyline, local materials like red sandstone, and no taller than the Garrick at any point. And no roof. A monolithic indoor shopping mall can only ever be a monolithic indoor shopping mall; without continual re-investment it becomes seedy and intimidating. And grotesquely dated. House your spanking new retail units in a new network of city streets and you allow the new area of town to evolve and merge with the established cityscape – parts of the whole can grow, change, be demolished or extended (to some extent, the Bakers Lane precinct has done this). The irony is that elsewhere, the Friarsgate developers S-Harrison seem to have done just this – sympathetic, varied, human-scale developments, susceptible to organic change:

    http://www.s-harrison.co.uk/projects/completed/

    Lichfield deserves just as much care and attention to detail. But the city needs to be firm on that point. The current response (in a slightly facetious nutshell: “Please, we’re begging you, do ANYTHING – just give us a cinema!”) smacks of desperation.

    These are just a few thoughts – I certainly don’t have all the answers. Others will. But I’m absolutely certain on one point that many participants in the discussion just don’t seem to grasp: Friarsgate, as presented to us in its current form, is emphatically not the *only* answer.

    • Paul Groves says:

      Thanks Richard. I did take a look at the developer’s website and was left wondering why some of their existing schemes had not been translated into something Lichfield could work with. As it stands, Friarsgate will be landing on us with an almighty thud. I think more imaginative support for existing businesses, allied to the development of “theme” of sorts (as you say, look at Ludlow, Hay ey al) would offer a more attractive alternative. I agree, there does seem a slightly desperate willingness to fall into the arms of the first suitor who comes calling and remain completely smitten no matter what.

  2. sabcat says:

    I think Richard’s spot on. The problem with a development strategy of the Friarsgate type is that Lichfield joins a straight up race with every other identikit town with a shopping centre.

    Why should Lichfield win in that race even with people who live in the city? Is Friarsgate going to offer the range of standard retailers that Ventura Park has with it’s free parking 15 minutes drive from anywhere in Lichfield? Are there going to be as many department stores in Friarsgate as there are in Birmingham which can be reached by train for £6?

    The problem is it takes vision and courage to be unique.

  3. Martin Warrillow says:

    Meanwhile, up the road in Tamworth, our out-of-town shopping mega-centre is eating up all around, attracting visitors from all over the Midlands who drive to Ventura and (if they can get out of the place) go straight home when they’ve finished in Asda, ignoring the Snowdome, the cinema, Tamworth FC, the Castle and its’ grounds and slowly (no, make that quickly) strangling our town centre. Paul, read the Mary Portas report – it makes a lot of sense about how our two town/city centres could avoid becoming Anywheresville and cut out an independent future for themselves. Tamworth is already trying to do some of it (declaration of interest – I am involved on a part-time unpaid basis with the Tamworth and District Tourism Association and its visittamworth website); Lichfield should look at doing the same, if it isn’t already.

    • Paul Groves says:

      Thanks Martin. I have looked at the Portas report – and some of the things she’s done on TV. It all makes sense – common sense, which seems to have been lacking as regards planning for quite some time. As has been said before, two crucial ingredients are vision and courage. Sadly they seem to have gone the way of common sense. I wish you and Tamworth luck, we’re all in this together…now, where have I heard that before…?

  4. sabcat says:

    Thinking about this further there’s not much courage required, although some vision is still needed.

    The TG Hughes building by itself could be used to reinvigorate Lichfield. It could be turned into an indoor market of sorts. No mobile phone case sellers but rather a more craft based affair. It would be easy and inexpensive to divide it up into viable units that could be rented cheaply (I’d argue that free for 3 months would be a good start to fill it) and get the kind of independent diversity into the city that can’t be found on Ventura Park.

    Nothing need be built to start Lichfield down a unique path but the political will for such a journey seems to be non existent. Friarsgate, despite the problems and set backs (how many years late is it now?) is being pursued by the council with the kind of determination shown by Ahab.

    • Paul Groves says:

      Great idea for the TJ Hughes building. But I think courage is still required – it is the courage to dare to be different and not adopt the sheep mentality of “everyone else is going down this route so we should too”. I’m dubious as to claims that Friarsgate will provide a long-term solution as the experience of other towns and cities that have adopted the identikit mall approach suggests that in 5, 10, 15 years they need to “breathe new life” into the site yet again – more expensive redevelopment that still offers nothing different. If (when?) Friarsgate gets the go ahead, how long before we’re having to discuss the need for Son of Friarsgate and why the original scheme failed to address Lichfield’s problems and requirements? Avoiding that scenario does take courage because it means making a concerted effort to abandon the flock and try something different.

  5. sabcat says:

    I agree with that you’re saying. The reason I say “not much courage” is because the TJ Hughes building is already there, no one needs to find £100million in funding to do it. Yes, it needs money to develop the space and advertise it both to shoppers and potential retailers, that’s 10’s of thousands rather than 10’s of millions though. It could be done, once a decision was made within weeks, not years of construction. Mickey Fab could be cutting a ribbon on it at Easter.

    It’s the time factor that worries me most about all of this. Friarsgate, even if it is the success that its advocates believe, will be no benefit to the city for years. In the mean time it spells disruption of the shops that are already there, road closures, diversions, dust , noise and all the other associated problems major construction brings with it.

    If I was running a shop in Lichfield now I’d be a very worried individual.

  6. stymaster says:

    I’m coming late to this, but, for me, one of the appeals of La-di-dah Lichfield is precisely that it isn’t another identikit town centre: it has independent shops, good pubs, and restaurants. Creating a large shopping centre full of the usual suspects will kill the place.

  7. [...] danger is that Lichfield becomes a clone city centre by default because that is what best suits the different demands of the different population [...]

  8. [...] TLC and redevelopment, although the jury remains out as far as some are concerned that the planned Friarsgate scheme will address the issues that Lichfield is [...]

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