John Lewis is opening. Ring out the bells!
This is a really positive moment for Cheltenham. Visually, the shop front is an improvement on the tired old Beechwood Arcade. Jobs-wise, the store is generating opportunities with its enlightened approach to treating its employees properly. And after years of complaints about the terrible tarmac patches blighting the High Street, it was John Lewis’ dismay about its appearance that finally spurred the councils into laying new paving.
But this must not be the end to Cheltenham’s regeneration. After an initial surge in visitors due to the novelty, they could easily drift back to to Cribbs Causeway and elsewhere if the Cheltenham shopping experience doesn’t improve.
That means getting the basics right.
First, Cheltenham needs to be an attractive environment once again. Efforts to tackle urban ‘grot spots’ need to be stepped up, making the streets cleaner and litter-free. Visitors frequently say to me that the Cheltenham’s not as pleasant to visit as it used to be. That needs to change.
Second, it means ensuring that the highways improvements don’t stop outside John Lewis, but extend up to the Bath Road. Shoppers are put off by having to navigate loose cobbles and uneven paving. It would be bizarre to spend £1.5 million-plus on the small patch of Boots corner whilst half the High Street remains a glaring eyesore.
Third, Cheltenham must be cheaper to park. The new cohort of visitors won’t stray beyond the John Lewis car park and into other parts of town if they are put off by the highest parking charges in Gloucestershire. Shoppers deserve an immediate cut, and an end to post-6pm charges to boost the evening trade. If they can have free evening parking in London, why not Cheltenham?
John Lewis can be the catalyst for wider regeneration, but it’s essential that the basics are decisively tackled.