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Labour guru's verdict on fate of town centre

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: February 06, 2014

Labour adviser Bill Grimsey.

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PENZANCE town centre needs a new plan, claims a Labour Party business adviser in a TV programme highlighting the "death" of the high street.

Monday's edition of the BBC South West programme Inside Out sent Bill Grimsey, former chief executive of Wickes and Iceland, to west Cornwall to evaluate the struggles faced by town centres, and Penzance in particular.

He is advising Labour on its business rate strategy and has written a report on reviving the high street, an alternative to that produced for the Government by Mary Portas.

Mr Grimsey, who was filmed in Market Jew Street and Causewayhead, said: "I say the high street as we know it is dead. The hustle and bustle of 40 years ago has gone and it's not coming back."

He commented on the "nice buzz" in Causewayhead with its many independent shops but noted that "one or two empty shops are creeping in".

In Market Jew Street, he called it a crime that the shop in Market House had stood empty for two years and bemoaned Woolworth's replacement by a pound shop.

As an example of a town to follow, he then extolled the virtues of Totnes in Devon, where 80 per cent of the shops are independent and the town centre boasts a large library.

"We need to look at something other than shops in our town centres," he said.

"We need more housing, office space and community facilities. I don't think that Mary Portas's review will work; we can't do makeovers."

Mr Grimsey met several of Penzance's "movers and shakers" – architect Keith Bell, Penzance Chamber of Commerce chair Dick Cliffe, Chapel Street shop-owner Emily Kavanaugh and Marcus Wilkinson, owner of Alfred Smith – in the Ritz, and wished them luck as they set about producing a plan designed to revitalise Penzance over the next 18 months.

"They have a great deal of enthusiasm and an understanding that something needs to happen, but it's going to take time and I think Penzance will be struggling for quite a while yet," he said. "There's a big challenge here."

However, Mr Cliffe said he was less than impressed with Mr Grimsey – whose tenure at Iceland is referred to on the company's website as 'The Dark Ages' – saying he approached the programme with a preconceived agenda.

"We knew that Penzance's role in the mini-documentary was to be the 'ugly stepsister' in a drama about the plight of Britain's town centres, but not to have participated would have sent the wrong message," he said.

"The filming was carefully orchestrated to create the desired effect. Bill Grimsey is right that towns need to plan for changed retail environment post-recession. Was it fair to edit out reference to Penzance's BID initiative and ignore or belittle the more successful parts of the town? Perhaps not.

"Penzance has proved more resilient than many secondary retail centres in the UK despite being in a low-income area."

Mr Wilkinson, who also took part in the programme was more positive: "To be fair to him, he was emphasising the need to plan for a changed retail environment post-recession. I think most of us understand that we have to win people back to the high street by providing plenty of retail theatre so they want to spend time in the town centre."

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