DUNCAN BARKES City-centre and out-of-town shopping both have their place

The opening of John Lewis at Home on the Chichester Retail Park has created jobs and will surely fuel growth for the area. But we have to be careful that the retail park doesn’t become a regular alternative to shopping in the centre of Chichester.

With charges in some of the city’s car parks now £1.10 an hour, as well as the new tariff for parking on Sundays, we urgently need a debate about finding a balance that protects the smaller independent city-centre retailer.

You can get pretty much everything you might require at the retail park, where parking is free and plentiful. Food, clothes, dry cleaning, medicine, DIY supplies, anything you need for your car, bike, office, home or garden – even your pets are catered for. And if shopping leaves you hungry, there’s a choice of cafes and restaurants.

The odds seem rather seem stacked against many of the great shops in Chichester. Parking charges aside, such small businesses have the burden of business rates and regulations the bigger chains can simply take in their stride.

A couple of quiet weeks’ trading for a small independent can trigger a conversation about whether it is worth continuing, while the large high-street names are better able to weather a downturn in trade.

Money and time matter. The Retail Park offers the opportunity to save both. The balance is tilting away from the city centre and towards the out-of-town option.

Chichester businesses recently voted in favour of Business Improvement District (BID) status. This private sector initiative sees businesses within the city contributing financially to a five-year project designed to promote Chichester and encourage more visitors.

But if visitors – and locals for that matter – are to be inspired to spend time and money in the city centre, then we need to preserve Chichester’s unique identity. A major part of that identity is the diverse mix of one-offs and high street chains.

I am a fan of the BID; I’ve seen what such initiatives can achieve in places like Winchester and Liverpool. But one of its challenges has to be to ensure the ever-expanding Retail Park complements the city centre, not competes against it.

I would like to think people would go out of their way to ensure the survival of smaller retailers, but sadly life doesn’t work this way.

You only have to look at the negative effect that new Co-op has had on the smaller businesses on The Ridgeway parade in Chichester. In a matter of months one trader has been forced out, unable to compete with the bigger and better resourced Co-op.

There should be room for the retail park and the shops in the city centre, but it needs to be a level playing field. The BID obviously has a part to play, but so too does Chichester District Council. Their focus should be on helping small business, not creating barriers.

If Chichester loses the choice and colour currently provided by the independent and smaller traders then we will all be worse off.