Amid shop and restaurant chain closures and the seemingly inevitable death of the high street, Colchester town aims to regenerate Britain’s oldest town with its latest series of reform plans.
Across the nation, nearly 650 shops and restaurants have closed since 2018, including mega toy business Toys R Us after its shocking closure on the 24th April after a 70-year run.
Another large company facing closure is New Look, after it announced in March that it plans to close 60 of its stores throughout the year. Homebase and House are Fraser are also among those at risk.
Colchester has been one of the towns hit with the death of the high street, with its last remaining butchers, Frank Wright and Sons, forced to close last year after 80 years of service. Its closure was said to be due to a decline in sales from the death of the high street and popularity of supermarkets.
Minerva Chocolates, an independent chocolate shop, also closed in March. They listed traffic, lacking of parking for the town, and a change in shopping trends as the reason why the shop was forced to close.
Minerva Chocolates wasn’t the only one who has found Colchester town’s traffic problematic. In a vox pop, asking the public their opinion of the town, David Russell, a retired Colchester resident, said; “I like the town but I’ve always had a problem with the roads.
Tony Mallett, 52, pointed out that parking wasn’t just a problem for town visitors but also residents; “I’ve just bought a place round the corner from the town centre and it’s got no parking, I have to pay £8 to £10 a day just to park.” “I don’t think they’re managed very well, in terms of getting in and out and getting around – there’s always traffic. The system for bus routes and the bus-only lanes also doesn’t work when you’re going down the high street and want to turn off into Queen’s road – you can’t do it.”
Among this, Upchurch Jewellers was another victim of the death of the high street. Its manager, Adrian Batchelor, blamed the closure on Colchester Borough Council’s poor management of the town and its lack of help for independent retailers.
However, some Colchester residents are seeing the rise in fast food restaurants as having a negative impact on the town. Colchester’s town centre has seen the arrival of several restaurants, including the opening of Turtle Bay, a Caribbean-themed restaurant, and Five Guys, an American fast-food restaurant. Other new additions have included Wagamama and Byron Burger.
Colchester Borough Council has also given a green light to The Vineyard Gate Project after its introduction 10 years ago.Maintenance worker Keith Sufflet, 68, said: “now when you go down to the market place, all you see is pizzas and kebabs and all these foreign foods – that isn’t a market place. There’s too many fast food restaurants.”
The scheme was appointed architects in February and plans use the 2.5-acre site currently used by the Vineyard Gate car park and various adjacent properties.
It will introduce more residential, commercial, leisure and retail uses into the town centre in hope of revamping the historic town and attracting more visitors to the high street. The boutique retail part in particular is aimed at improving the potential for start-up businesses.
These reforms seem to be much needed in Colchester with Margaret Francis, a retired Colchester resident, pointing out that Colchester town has become much less appealing than neighbouring towns such as Chelmsford.
“I think it looks very dowdy, I would like to see it improved among the shops. Most of the shops are empty and there are a lot of charity shops. At one stage we were going to have John Lewis here, and I think we need more shops like that.
However, it’s not just modernisation of the town that’s being focused on, as the project also plans to put the town’s famous Roman Wall on show, previously covered by houses, in an attempt to bring more tourists to the town’s heritage.
“Shops just come and go quicker. A shop opens up and is empty again. It’s (Colchester town) certainly lost something compared to Chelmsford. We’ve got Fenwicks which is a nice shop but people just aren’t coming in as much as they used to.
Among these historic restorations has been the £10 million revamp of the town’s famous George Hotel, which the council confirmed in December 2017. The plans will include a whole new refurbishment and expansion. The work is due to start this year.