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How can Peterborough's city centre rebound - time for a different shopping experience?

March and the start of April were not good times for Peterborough city centre and Queensgate.
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Could small markets be an answer for Queensgate?

John Lewis and Next are going, to add to many others that left. Others are still up in the air, the victims of pandemic-fuelled acceleration of shopping habits.

Digital sales rose by a third last year and could rise by another quarter in 2021. But there's still something about seeing people in the flesh, and not via Zoom, that will give retailers hope after a miserable 12 months. You can't drink a coffee or get a haircut virtually, yet.

Some retailers and food sellers never opened after March 23 last year, let alone this year. Queensgate is not commenting on what is going on so far, and this is perhaps to be expected. Hopefully new investments and approaches are being made behind the scenes.

Until then we can only wait until Monday at the earliest to see the real effects of the pandemic in 2021, both in Queensgate, the city centre, and indeed England as a whole for the spring, summer and beyond.

The worst possible scenario would be another lockdown, something which has swirled around as a vague threat in the background. 

Last week Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, told The Express: “We all want this to be the last lockdown as any retailer that has survived the past 12 months has probably used every ounce of that energy and enthusiasm, and financial resources, to get here.

“So any more lockdowns this year could be absolutely fatal for them.”

However, in the same piece Andrew predicts a “great year” if the reopening goes well on April 12. He said: “After one of the worst years, this could be one of the best years."

But will that apply in Peterborough? A search of our comments and polls show that many people have no intention of shopping as they did, whether they are vaccinated or not. Sanitisers, masks and booths will continue to be important for a long time yet, one suspects. 

Cafe culture is definitely a step in the right direction, but we're still in April, and it's cold - that will scupper drinking outside into the evening for many people, if they feel safe enough to venture out anyway.  May 17 and a full reopening might attract more drinkers, but the notion of a vaccine passport looms large, which presumably eliminates at least a portion of our younger people.

Similarly, as many people have become accustomed to working from home, so shopping online has shot through the roof. Those things we desperately needed were still available, while those we didn't - which could range from furniture to clothes to electronics to other items - actually became less important.

If we can do without stores selling some of these items, what could replace them?

One idea - which will no doubt be controversial - is for commercial premises to be converted into homes, through new recent planning laws announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick 

The changes mean full planning applications will not be required and the homes will instead be delivered through a prior approval process.

The changes will also include a 'fast track' for extending public buildings, such as schools, colleges and hospitals; these are currently allowed to have small extensions without the need for full planning application but, under new rules, extensions can be built further and faster with a more streamlined planning process. 

So could we see even more houses, flats and homes planted directly in the middle of the city?

And if so, what will bring people out? One of the problems that we have heard with the university is not the building itself, and not even the student accommodation - it's the lack of attractions that will get them to apply to go to Peterborough in the first place. And if that doesn't matter, and the applicants will be local, we could be stuck in exactly the same position we are now anyway.

While the city centre is nowhere near as bad as many would have you believe, there is little doubt that it lacks certain things that you would find elsewhere. The smaller shops and alleyways that one would find in Stamford, or further afield Lincoln, York and elsewhere, just don't exist in our city. And even if they did, there will perhaps be a need to change lease agreements for buildings to make them affordable to smaller businesses.

The closest we've seen is the markets that pop up; one in Bridge Street last year was particularly good, and there is no real reason why this should not return more permanently.

Elsewhere, there has to be a different approach and another alternative is for Peterborough to be more experimental.

In a recent hustings of Peterborough city councillors and candidates, the question of what the city centre needs next was put to the four participants.

While support and investment for newcomers was raised, Cllr Nicola Day said this: "Shopping is becoming more experience-based, such as in Apple shops. I can also see high streets becoming more sociable spaces, with more diversity of restaurants, and more investment in the arts. I would like to see Peterborough Cathedral have a light show so people can flock to it like they do in cities and towns in France." 

Would this work? Could we see pop up pods and Instagram screens in our city centre? How about yoga classes or reading groups in Queensgate? Could those words that many people dread - content and social media - be ways to bring people together in retail spaces? Remember the craze for flash mobs a few years ago? Will those behind the Vine have the bravery to embrace ideas such as these?

In America in 2019 Dallas welcomed the arrival of something called Music Street - an art, entertainment and dining venue which has been hampered by Covid, but has not been derailed. 

According to rebusiness online: "It is set to include a 1,024-seat indoor performance hall, 390-seat outdoor performance stage, indoor dining area with a third performance stage, multiple restaurant options, six guest kitchens with a revolving chef roster, 65-foot cinema screen, pavilion, and multiple two-sided bars that accommodate indoor and outdoor crowds, among other features."

No-one would expect to see that in Peterborough, but the idea is interesting. A changing dynamic, an outdoor and indoor offering, food and sociability, and room for maneouvre. Talking, watching, doing, and having.

And strangely, there is one area of Peterborough that might be the starting point without anyone realising it - Wentworth Street.

Bottle and Board and the imminent Glo Golf, among others, are both experiential. Sure, they might not be your idea of a good experience - but they are places that persuade you to have interaction and be sociable, and talk. You could also include Lost Time Tattoo and Burghley Flower Centre, which again are tactile, and visual. And that is where a digital experience cannot compete.

The aforementioned Vine will only be a stone's throw away very soon, and if we get the businesses and ideas we hope for this could be the push towards what Rivergate, the Nene, Fletton Quays and the Embankment that we - and Peterborough - need.