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Kirkby Lonsdale and Blackburn shortlisted for Great British High Street of the Year Awards

00:00 28 November 2016

Kirkby Lonsdales high street is almost exclusively independent

Kirkby Lonsdales high street is almost exclusively independent

glynn ward - KL pix

Kirkby Lonsdale and Blackburn are both shortlisted for national awards celebrating our town centres. Photography: Glynn Ward

The centre of Blackburn has been transformedThe centre of Blackburn has been transformed

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting locations – one a reviving urban centre once fired by the Industrial Revolution and the other a bucolic picture postcard market town packed with designer shops.

But Kirkby Lonsdale and Blackburn do have at least one thing in common – a core of local people prepared to work together to improve their communities. And their passion has now been recognised – judges in the Great British High Street competition have shortlisted them for national awards.

This competition, instigated by the government and supported by several household names in the business world, is designed to celebrate work to revive, adapt and diversify the national’s high streets.

It’s a response to a series of gloomy reports predicting an almost inevitable decline of the British high street as internet sales suck away business and identical chain stores remove any vestige of character.

Cllr Geoffrey Buswell, awards judge Stephanie Larnder, Cllr Allan Muirhead, judge Peter Donohoe, Sarah Ross, Nick Cotton, Liz Sanders and Robin Sadler.Cllr Geoffrey Buswell, awards judge Stephanie Larnder, Cllr Allan Muirhead, judge Peter Donohoe, Sarah Ross, Nick Cotton, Liz Sanders and Robin Sadler.

This is a competition to prove the pessimists wrong. More than 900 towns and villages entered the 14 categories. Blackburn, in the town section, is up against Banbury and Hemel Hempstead while Kirkby Lonsdale is battling it out with the villages of Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire and Langport in Somerset. It should be no contest.

Allan Muirhead, of the Kirkby Lonsdale town council, said one of the main strands of their submission to the judges involved the refusal to accept that their ancient outdoor market, which has a Royal charter going back to the 13th Century, was a dead duck.

Stallholders were down to two or three on a good week and, as managers, the district council wanted to close it to stem further losses. A similar fate awaited the public toilets and the tourist information centre. ‘Their loss would have diminished the town’s attractiveness and have an adverse effect on the local economy as visitors stayed away,’ said Allan.

Several organisations were drawn together and, with a Community Interest Company, they took over the market, changed the rules, made it more attractive to traders and they now have around 12 regulars stallholders selling their goods at the Thursday market. In fact, it has been so successful it has financed a part-time manager.

Mackerel skies over the Market SquareMackerel skies over the Market Square

The town also retained its public toilet and volunteers saved the tourist information centre with Sarah Ross, the tourism and town manager, developing new ways to finance this vital base for visitors and townsfolk. ‘Getting into the top three of the competition has been wonderful for the town,’ she said. ‘With so many entries, we only had a five per cent chance but we’ve come through. Winning the competition will raise the town’s profile further, bring in more visitors and provide more business. This is the sort of thing that puts us on the map. It has a lasting effect.’

Allan added: ‘It has all been down to a team spirit and a lot of hard work. It has been great fun and, of course, we have people with disparate views but with one end in view and that’s to benefit the town.’

Mark Fuller, of the award-winning Sun Inn, told the awards judges: ‘Our message is that the destination is as important as the individual businesses. Our responsibility is to use all the local services available and that way we keep the town alive.’

Across in Blackburn there is a similar air of optimism following the dramatic creation of the Cathedral Quarter. Phil Riley, in charge of regeneration for the council, said: ‘Blackburn is full of interesting and creative shops and businesses and we are proud to have a great community spirit where businesses work together to promote each other.

‘Recent years have seen an extraordinary transformation in the town centre – hardly a day goes by without someone telling me that the appearance has changed so much, they can’t believe they are in Blackburn.

‘This transformation has not come about through luck. It is the result of a hugely impressive partnership to provide a changed experience for everyone who works, trades, shops and lives in the town. The good news is that this work is going to carry on as that change continues. We are proud to celebrate that Blackburn has a unique, welcoming identity which we truly believe sets us apart from other towns.’

Winners, to be revealed this month, are chosen through a combination of visits by judges and online voting. Not only will they get a share of prize pot worth £100,000, but they’ll win expert training from Google’s digital taskforce for shops, bars and restaurants and a trip to Twitter UK’s London office to further boost their social media skills.

Harriet Roberts is manager of the Blackburn Business Improvement District, a project to create a vibrant commercial environment. ‘Blackburn is at an exciting point in its history. The town centre has undergone a major transformation over the past few years and we are proud it has been listed as one of the nation’s best high streets.’

thegreatbritishhighstreet.co.uk/high-street-of-the-year-award

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