INTERVIEW: What traders think should be done to revive shopping in Ely High Street
PUBLISHED: 17:24 19 August 2019 | UPDATED: 09:44 21 August 2019
Ely has been classed as having one of the UK’s most successful High Streets - full of charm and perfect for eagle-eyed shoppers looking for a quirky buy.
Yet it recent months, soaring rates and fading footfall appear to have taken its toll on our much-loved haven of independent shops.
The city has a great blend of historic and modern shops housed in buildings bursting with character - but upon Googling 'Ely High Street' a mixed bag of articles appear.
Ironically the top three - published just one year apart - refer to the High Street as "one of the most successful" by the Local Data Company (LDC) and then "in crisis".
The LDC, who undertake market research for the UK retail sector, said that the vacancy rate in Ely is now 4.3 per cent, which two years on is still considerably lower than the national average.
I spent the afternoon speaking to shop owners to see what it's really like to work in a struggling climate in a city steeped in history.
Calls for more CCTV, a police presence at night and better signage for shops in the High Street Passage appear as the main concern for traders.
Others included empty shops being filled with charity shops and tourists only spending time at the cathedral due to limited coach parking areas.
Wendy Gamble, from lighting and gift shop Kays of Ely, took over the business two and a half years ago.
"There was a lot more footfall then," she said.
"People are generally on a mission to get an item they need, such as a light bulb, and then leave.
"We have a lot of visitors who say that they love independent shops and that is what makes the city unique.
"We rent a shelf to crafters in the shop too but we do need more shoppers, it is as simple as that."
Jo Chapman, from PostivEly, who offer holistic health treatments, has been based in the High Street Passage for the last decade.
She said that the demolition of the swimming pool in 2017 meant that they lost 25 per cent of footfall.
"We need the support in the town as all of us love Ely," she explained.
"This is a thriving and vibrant city and we want people to get involved and help us.
"We have lost 25 per cent of footfall since the swimming pool went and there are stalls on the market that are selling the same things that we do.
"It is literally putting other people out of business.
"We cannot compete with charity shops. We know that they do a lot of good but we don't have things donated to us and we are hit with business rates.
"We opened in a recession nine years ago and were doing really well, yet now it is a weekday in the summer holidays and there are hardly any people about."
Annabel Reddick, of Burrows Bookshop, has been based in Ely for the past 25 years.
The staple store in High Street Passage has been at the heart of the city.
She said that empty shops being taken over by charities was a problem.
"On a local level it is quite hard as more and more charity shops are coming into the High Street.
"Any empty shops are taken over by them.
"We are very lucky to be in a place with fantastic places to eat and a lot to do and see yet the one thing that lets us down is the shopping."
Mayor of Ely Mike Rouse, said that a change in shopping habits and modern cultural differences meant that people had moved away from the traditional view of the high street.
He explained: "It's not like how it used to be years ago when one parent would work and then another would come out and do the shopping.
"There has been a lot of change gradually in recent times and now people don't have to shop each day, they can get it online or in a supermarket.
"People commute to London from here for work and they aren't here to support local businesses.
"We are well provided with independent shops and we want to be positive in listening to their needs and making improvements where we can.
"In regards to business rates its down to the government, we can't control the rents as most are London based landlords."
But others felt that the despite the past 18 months being hard; things were actually on the up.
Positive community spirit and regulars coming back due to good customer service meant that it wasn't all a struggle.
Helen Watkins, from gift shop Eel Catchers Daughter, has been in the city for the six years.
"We always like to think that if people tell us what they want, we will get it in stock for them," she said.
"A lot of our trade is local people who may be looking for a little gift such as jewellery then pick up a candle too, so we make sure we keep prices sensible."
Emily Chen, from gift shop UClassy, said she was the only stockist of Cath Kidson products.
"I have confidence that things are picking up and it will get better.
"There has been a real feel of positivity in the area and we're all doing our bit to make sure that remains."
Annabel Butcher, from craft shop Sew Much To Do, reiterated Emily's thoughts.
She said: "We are a great community here and get regular customers.
"We may be hidden away in the High Street Passage but people know that we are here and they will always be made welcome when in Ely."
David Archer, who runs tour operator Archer and Gaher Adventures in Ely, added: "There needs to be a balance of people working together with the local government to tackle any issues on the High Street.
"Ely is a wonderful place and even initiatives such as shop shares or pop-up shops could be a way to move forward."