Now the council owns Whitefriars is there potential for creating something new for the city?
Despite being steeped in history and famous as the centre of the worldwide Anglican church, Canterbury can fail to live up to expectations when it visitors arrive for a city break. Only 7% of Canterbury visitors stay overnight, half what a European city such as Bruges might expect. This isn’t just about shopping, but one has to wonder why that number couldn’t be a bit higher. It’s not for Canterbury’s lack of charm. The view down Mercery Lane to the Christ Church gate is an Instagrammer’s dream, as is the view across the Westgate Gardens.
Christmas markets in medieval cities across Europe attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But as former Canterbury council head of planning, Bob Britnell, put it when comparing Winchester to Canterbury “there are about 200 stalls with no tat, mobile phone covers or lurid jumpers – it was all quality stuff”. Christmas in Canterbury just doesn’t draw the same crowds.
Last year’s Christmas lights came under fire. Locals were disappointed by the £70k lights, describing them as “sparse” and “lacklustre”. In particular, the square of lights unevenly draped over the front of the Westgate Towers left a lot to be desired. Those who have travelled around Europe over the festive period will know that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of lights to create an amazing impact. But it does take style – and maybe that’s what we’re lacking.
Now the council owns the whole of the Whitefriars shopping centre, perhaps this is the time to look again at Canterbury’s proposition as a visitor destination. Our city planners have an opportunity for some joined-up thinking now they control the market spaces in Whitefriars as well as the High Street. Might it be worth reinvesting some of the profits from the new retail real estate into new Christmas lights? No doubt Canterbury traders would welcome the support.
Inevitably the council will face calls to direct proceeds to housing and welfare, and these are certainly areas that need attention. But increasing Canterbury’s desirability as a destination can only be good for everyone, from the most vulnerable in society to those who work in the hotels, bars and restaurants.