With Chester's retail and tourist attractions facing increasing competition, action was needed. The city council cabinet last month approved a Single Action Plan to tackle problems including crime, grime and access, and to improve marketing. ROB DEVEY examines the blueprint.
Chester's new Single Action Plan is a frank and honest document. While never losing sight of what makes the city centre the attraction it is, the plan admits things could be better for tourists and residents alike.
It identifies a host of problems that need to be addressed if Chester is to keep up with competition from reinvigorated retail giants such as Manchester and Liverpool and other historic centres like York and Bath.
Crucially, it also includes solutions timetabled over the short, medium and long-term.
More than 25 separate strategies have been pooled to create one coherent masterplan.
A 'Grime Team' will be set up to tackle problems such as waste collection, litter, chewing gum, fly posting, footpath maintenance and lighting.
To this end, a review committee report into the plan gives a damning indictment of two of the jewels in the city's crown, the Walls and Rows.
Both are described as poorly maintained and badly lit. The Walls are 'unsafe' at night, the Rows - subject to an application for World Heritage Status - are 'threatening'.
A perception of feeling unsafe is a common theme throughout the plan.
Recent surveys show 36% of residents will not visit the city centre in the evening.
The city centre accounts for 27% of all reported crime in the Chester district, including retail crime, theft, violent crime, anti-social behaviour and substance misuse.
CCTV coverage and the number of community wardens will be increased, while more retailers and licensed premises will be encouraged to link up with the city centre's Cosign radio network.
Subways will be removed and safe pedestrian routes developed.
Efforts will be made to secure longer opening hours at the Town Hall Police Station and a joint programme to address drug issues and anti-social behaviour issues will be established.
Transport issues are also to the fore - a new park and ride will be developed to the east of the city and the existing park and ride will run later.
Improved bus services, a new coach park at the Little Roodee and major refurbishment of Chester Station, are also on the cards.
Reduced charges will be introduced at selected city council car parks in conjunction with late night opening.
Across the board, a lack of joined-up thinking between different agencies and the public and private sectors is blamed.
Worryingly, these problems could finally be taking their toll.
The plan admits: 'Whilst the city centre is still financially strong its competitive edge is being eroded.
'There has been a lack of prime retail growth over the last five years, coupled with a decline in trade reported by some of the major retailers.'
Chester City Centre Management will take the lead in implementing the plan, and will appoint a number of task groups, including service users and providers.
City Centre manager Clive Bayley said: 'The report says things could be better than they are. It's not that they are necessarily bad. Chester punches well above its weight in terms of retail, tourism, hotels and attractions.
'But there is an ongoing battle in an extremely competitive environment to keep Chester on top.
'If a business has a choice of three possible locations in the North West, Chester is very likely to be one of them.
'But to be the first choice we need to do a good job selling ourselves.'
There is recognition that marketing of the city could be improved and the plan calls for the development of a distinct 'Chester' brand.
Welcome packs are on the cards, along with new street furniture and signage that is recognisably Chester.
Chester's increased retail offer, spearheaded by the Northgate Development, will be crucial.
But there is also a strong emphasis on restaurants, bars, tourist attractions, hotels, and cultural activities.
A culture park concept will link with the city's most valuable attractions into different zones with unique identities, such as The Cathedral Quarter, Amphitheatre Park and Castle Gateway.
Other aims include more late-night shopping and the opening up of new and existing leisure and civic attractions later into the evening.
That ambition will form part of a new drive to introduce a Chester At Night strategy, with a continental-style cafe culture in a safer city.
The failure to fully implement the strategy was criticised.
Mr Bayley added that while efforts had been made to address some problems identified earlier, improving cooperation between the public and private sectors was now making success more likely.
'For example, there are endemic problems in cleaning the city and particularly the Rows, which will have even greater marketing potential if they get World Heritage Status,' he said.
'But improvements can only be made in conjunction with the owners.'
While the city will need to make its own money go further, external grants and private sector support will be crucial.
Cllr Reggie Jones, who has responsibility for the economy, said a successful bid to make the city centre a Business Improvement District (BID) would be a major boost, seeing a 1-2% rise in business rates put directly back into the area, with a company set up specifically to decide how to spend the money.
Businesses vote on the idea next year. 'At the moment the money collected goes to the Government and is redistributed to local authorities, said Cllr Jones.
'I think Chester gets less money back than it gives and while I believe in re-distribution, our city has its own problems.'
Cllr Jones said the city had been successful in increasing annual visitor numbers from 6m a few years ago to 8.5m.
'But we can't be complacent,' he added. 'There's always a need for us to raise standards across a whole range of services to improve our product, not only for visitors, but also for residents and people who work here.
'This is an exciting time and over the next 5-10 years the city's physical transformation will raise its profile.'