There is an air of enthusiasm and optimism in Liskeard which permeates the town and the high street is full.
There have been floral displays everywhere throughout the spring and summer months. Shoppers can be seen darting in and out of a wide array of mainly independent shops and new businesses are flourishing.
This is a town looking up. A town transformed.
Five years ago Liskeard was in the doldrums, with a low shop occupancy rate and a high street blighted by empty units. But, most of all, this was a town on the decline suffering some sort of identity crisis.
The Cornish town was chosen to be a pilot town by self-styled Queen of Shops Mary Portas to see if it could change its fate.
Like 11 other towns in the UK, including Tiverton in Devon, Liskeard received a £100,000 grant from the Mary Portas scheme to revive its fortunes.
Five years on, we paid the market town, which once prospered through the wool trade, a visit to see what has changed.
Liskeard high street has fewer empty shops than when Mary Portas visited the Cornish town to turn its fortunes round in 2012 (Image: Olivier Vergnault)
Sally Hawken, Cornwall councillor for Liskeard East and a member of the original Town Team which led the Portas town pilot project five years ago, said: “Things never stand still. Some businesses have come in, others have gone.
“Some businesses have started and others have ceased to exist. But while the national high street shop occupancy average is 10%, out of 150 businesses in the town you can count empty shops on one hand. More than 75% of our shops are independent and 25% are chains. But the shops we have are more suited to a small town like Liskeard.”
The old Taylors Garage on Barras Street before Wetherspoon’s development works
Above is the empty space where JD Wetherspoon is due to open a new pub in Liskeard. Work on the new venue is now underway.
One eyesore remains in the town but plans are further advanced for a Wetherspoon pub to take over the space.
Already the pub chain has worked with the community on finding a name and has received planning consent and a licence to operate.
Yet, that very eyesore has been put to good use by the community so the hole in the street facades does not stare at you like a toothless grin. Flowers have been planted. Community arts events have appropriated the space to show off what the town has to offer.
The creative use of the space reached a climax when The Man Engine visited Liskeard last year.
With more than 7,000 people descending onto the town on the day, this was the biggest crowd Liskeard had ever seen – even bigger than when the Olympic Torch came through.
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Liskeard’s transformation, from sleepy town neither on the moors nor by the sea into an easy to great access hub with a burgeoning tech industry, is not only due to a welcome revival of its high street’s fortune, but more importantly to a change in attitudes.
Rachel Brooks, chairman of the communication and engagement committee on Liskeard town council, said: “We have a greater variety of people getting involved now. There is now an atmosphere where new ideas and involvement in the life of the town are actively encouraged.”
Liskeard seems to boast a much greater sense of self worth and self esteem and people who may not have been involved in the community before or are new to the South East Cornwall town are coming to the fore with their own ideas.
Seven people have actually volunteered to take a seat on the town council after some positions remained vacant following last month’s local elections.
Mrs Brooks added: “Liskeard had the same old voice before. Now more people feel they have more freedom to express their own different voice. We have grown in confidence in Liskeard and many in the town feel they are able to do things they could not do before.
“Just look at the Man Engine. We encountered some scepticism from traders at first about the activities we wanted to put on throughout the day. But then again we had 7,000 visitors in Liskeard.
“Liskeard even ran out of pasties on the day. I’m not sure this would have happened four or five years ago.”
Sally Hawken, Cornwall and town councillor for Liskeard East, Rachel Brooks, chairman of the communication and engagement committee for Liskeard town council, John Hesketh, chairman of the town forum and town councillor Sue Pike talking about how Liskeard is on the up over a coffee in Olive & Co coffee shop. (Image: Olivier Vergnault)
When Mary Portas took a stroll down Liskeard high street, she kept telling the crowds to look up.
Metaphorically, the town did just that when it instilled a new sense of enthusiasm and ensured shops were full and new businesses were encouraged to set up shop and flourish here.
But the town has also started to look up quite literally. Or perhaps it is looking back into its past and history to look forwards into the future.
Cllr Hawken said: “There is a burgeoning interest in Liskeard’s heritage and history. Mary Portas kept telling us to look up. What we should have done is to focus on Liskeard’s heritage. We knew it then and we know now.
“We need to develop our heritage and make it work as a business. Whether it’s B&Bs or shops, everyone needs to focus on the town’s history so it attracts more trade. There’s mileage in being knowledgeable about our town’s history and heritage.”
Stuart House in Liskeard (Image: Olivier Vergnault)
This may be a little-known fact, but Liskeard is home to a flurry of historical buildings, some dating back to Charles I. Many grand buildings were erected by rich wool merchants and were designed by renowned Victorian architects such as Henry Rice.
Cllr Hawken added: “We have now found a language to make heritage populist and interesting to people who thought this was just dry, old and dusty stuff. That’s what Mary Portas meant when she said look up.”
John Hesketh, chairman of the Liskeard town forum, is a relatively newcomer to Liskeard, but his aim is to bring a diverse community together to promote the town further.
“Our role is to support projects that will help bring the community together and promote our town.
“We now have a Neighbourhood Plan in place which has pulled people together and has given Liskeard a strong sense of project priority.”
One of such project is Liskeard in Bloom which aims to beautify the town with close to 100 hanging baskets and floral displays planted, seeded and grown by traders, schools and community groups.
Town councillor Sue Pike insists Liskeard may boast a Morrison’s supermarket on the outskirts, but it is nothing like a clone high street.
She said: “Liskeard is in a perfect location. It is between the moors and the sea. Visitors know us for our variety of independent shops. We’re not a clone town.”
Liskeard has been a market town for generations where cattle is brought in to be sold and bought. One area is crystallising the council’s attention is the cattle market.
The size of three football fields, it is a vast mostly unused space in the heart of the town with even vaster potential for development.
The focus for now though is, like heritage and historical buildings, the untapped creative sector.
“The creative sector may not be what people immediately associate with Liskeard,” said Cllr Hawken. “But it is here and it is flourishing. Whether it is the niche wool and yarn sector or the creative tech sector. Liskeard is at the top of its game and we want to ensure it grows even bigger.”
There are firms in the town with global audiences who work for Newquay’s Aerohub and the aerospace industry.
Other companies are burgeoning financial tech start-ups hoping to revolutionise the Debit Card payment industry and create dozens of jobs.
“We have a lot of young people who have a great affection for Liskeard but don’t seem to think or see what’s in it for them,” Mrs Pike said. “We need to help them see the great potential of the town so they come back here and create businesses and jobs.”
Lee Edwards moved to Liskeard from London in January 2016 and set up trendy coffee shop Olive & Co. (Image: Olivier Vergnault)
Lee Edwards moved his family from Crystal Palace to Liskeard in January 2016 so his daughter Olive could enjoy a better quality of life.
With his wife he set up Olive and Co, named after their daughter, which is a coffee shop doing a roaring trade thanks to top end coffees and deliciously decadent home baked pastries and cakes.
He said: “We named the coffee shop after our daughter. She’s the boss really. She’s Olive and we’re the ‘co’ bit. Business has been growing steadily, which is great. We have no regrets about our move to Liskeard.”
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Marcus Kern is the co-founder and CEO of tech finance firm Crypto Fintech, which is on the verge of revolutionising the direct debit industry.
The Crypto Fintech’s growing team in Liskeard. This tech business chose Liskeard because broadband speed in the town is three times faster than in London and there’s plenty of tech talent around. (Image: Olivier Vergnault)
He moved to Cornwall two years ago because of the better work life balance compared to London, where he lived before.
His firm employs eight staff but is looking to recruit 30 more over the next two years, from software coders to financial advisers.
The EU-funded company creates software which allows consumers to regain control of how and when they pay their bills, from direct debit payments split over several accounts to discounts if you pay sooner than planned.
Mr Kern believes what Crypto Fintech does will revolutionise the direct debit industry in the same way Paypal has transformed credit card payments.
But why Liskeard?
“If you think of what we require in the fintech sector. We need talented people and a great internet connection. We have fibre to the premises which gives us 380mb per second, which is three-times faster what I ever got in the centre of London.
“As far as attracting talent. Liskeard is central. We have people travelling from Plymouth or Truro. We have hired people who are relocating to Cornwall. Liskeard is better connected than people might think. Every mainline train stops here.
“We’re fostering relationships with other tech businesses, the community, local schools and colleges to interest them into IT and technology.
“We work in a disproportionally well-paid industry and it’s going to continue for many years to come. We want young people to see how rewarding an industry this is.”
From floral display to a high street full of independent shops, a growing tech sector to a niche but world-renown yarn and wool funky creative industry and rich untapped heritage, Liskeard has taken the advice of the Queen of Shops to heart and made it its own.
Liskeard is definitely looking up.
Source: Cornwall Live