When you think of Lancaster, what comes to mind? I reckon a straw poll of 20 people wouldn't agree on a description. It seems that the biggest challenge for this county town – make that county city – of Lancashire is to establish a clear identity for itself. This is apparent even before you approach the M6 turn-off. Here is the gateway to the Lake District, suggesting a muscular university city where Geography students drink real ale and climb big mountains… and then, what's this coming up? The castle and the prison, where Japanese tourists on their way to see Beatrix Potter mill around in between court sessions.
Then there is the lovely Georgian and Victorian architecture, the proximity to the sea with Morecambe just four miles away, and the city's reputation for a vociferous environmental lobby, represented by the 12 Green councillors on Lancaster's hung city council.
The identity issue isn't helped by the twinning of Lancaster with Morecambe to create a "Lancaster District" with a total population of 134,000 (source: 2001 Census). In economic terms, you can see the sense in linking the two to attract inward investment, but it muddies the waters, and seems to have dented public perception of Lancaster as a place in its own right.
"It's a bit like York, and a bit like Durham, isn't it?" says one middle-aged shopper, here on a day's excursion from her holiday in Blackpool. "I didn't know what to expect, hadn't heard much about what was here, to be honest. It's not the sort of place that people really seem to head to for a day out is it?"
You can see how Lancaster is still an abstract concept. This is not helped by dichotomies in strategic thinking. On one hand, there is the view from the Lancaster & Morecambe Vision, backed by the North West Development Agency and Lancaster City Council. Its stated aim is to "break down the barriers between Lancaster and Morecambe and other parts of the district, uniting its people and resources into a balanced and coherent economic and social community".
Then, according to Peter Sandford, the head of economic development & tourism services for Lancaster City Council, there is also: "The Regional Spatial Strategy, which sets the high-level planning framework, highlights Lancaster as having a key role, acting as a sub-regional centre not just for north Lancashire but also for southern Cumbria, matching Carlisle's role in the north."
Confusing, isn't it? This framework, plus the demands of the heritage and environment lobby, make for a tough regeneration climate in which to operate. Plans for the much-heralded Bailrigg science park, championed by the North West Development Agency, were withdrawn in January, amid environmental issues over the number of car-trips between the site and the M6. Congestion in and around Lancaster is a serious problem. A major Vision transport study will report next month. Its recommendations are expected to include putting buses into cycle lanes and park and ride schemes at junction 34 of the M6, Salt Ayre sports centre and at Morecambe's Bare Lane station.
In May, developer Centros will submit changes to its outline application to build Castle View, a major canal-side retail-led regeneration scheme of approximately 400,000 sq ft, which has a 100,000 sq ft Debenhams as its anchor, the city's first major department store. The scheme was originally submitted in 2007. The proposed changes are the result of a comprehensive consultation period with English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.
"If shoppers do come for the big stores, they might just find some money left in their pocket for us. I can't imagine the new development will suck every penny and shekel out of the existing retail trade," says Ian Steel, who has owned J. Atkinson & Co's Tea and Coffee Shop (established 1837) on the aptly-named China Street for the past three years.
Spurred on by the success of his company's own impressive leafleting campaign – "people pick up our leaflets at the service station and head into town to check us out" - Steel is compiling a guide to the 80-plus independent retailers in the surrounding picturesque streets. "The whole point of this initiative is to do something now, to tell people that Lancaster is full of fantastic independent shops, long before Centros even start work," he explains.
You have to admire his foresight – and faith. Although there is a diverse range of shops in the city centre, there are empty units. The Castle View scheme has been adjusted to respond to market conditions. "The reasons for the re-jig are two-fold, " says David Lewis, associate director of Centros. "One is in response to the consultation exercise, and the other is in response to significant market change. We have altered the scheme to react to retailer demand; units will now be from 500 sq ft to 20,000 sq ft. And we have increased the amount of residential by 10-15%, from 150 units to 170 houses and apartments."
You can see the thinking. But it might be an optimistic move. "It's been extremely slow in Lancaster this year, slower than the majority of my areas," says Helen Rains, area manager for the Halifax estate agency. "There is an abundance of apartments, a third of the [housing] stock, owned by investors who want to offload. They are lying empty. Prices are really falling. There is a lot of negative equity. Nothing is selling. We're going to end up giving them away, just to get rid of them."
It says nothing in the impressive Lancaster & Morecambe Vision about negative equity. It does say a lot of optimistic things about notions such as the establishment of a venture capital fund to support start-ups and the roll-out of high-spec wi-fi and fibre optic connections to put Lancaster at the forefront of the communications industry.
Catherine Potts, manager of the Vision board, believes that the major challenge for Lancaster is "telling the rest of the world, and certainly the rest of the North West, about our amazing assets… And we also need a bit more self-belief." In the current economic climate, a magic wand might also come in handy.