A SENIOR councillor who is helping drive forward the regeneration of South Shields town centre has made an impassioned plea for unity to worried traders.
Last week retailers spoke out in the Gazette over concerns at the number of empty shop units in King Street and Fowler Street – and a subsequent fall in customers throughout the town centre.
The fears were raised as the council pushes ahead with its ambitious decade-long masterplan – ‘South Shields 365’ – to regenerate the town centre.
Coun John Anglin, who recently took over as the council’s lead member for regeneration and economy, admits he would be concerned if he was a local retailer.
He says rates and rents in the centre – which the council does not set – are “stupidly high” but called for all involved to “speak with one voice” as the project continues.
Coun Anglin also addressed a “misunderstanding” which arose from a meeting between traders and council bosses last week.
Both Phil Goodfellow, a director with Northern Threads in Ocean Road, South Shields, and Jill Beard, who runs Apollo Bathrooms in the town’s Fowler Street, said it was suggested that retailers would not benefit from the 365 project for three years.
Coun Anglin said that timescale referred to when physical structures – such as the new Central Library and digital hub in the Market Place – would be fully up and running.
The plan is for the council to meet again with business representatives next month when some of the ideas raised at the initial gathering will be considered in more detail.
More free parking in the centre was also one of the issues raised last week.
Coun Anglin said that some of the attendees at the meeting were unaware of the free parking which already exists and said that has now been addressed with signs being put in place directing visitors to free parking near the town centre.
Coun Anglin said: “One of the issues often raised by traders is free parking. Most didn’t know about the free spaces at the back of Ocean Road and didn’t know about the spaces at the Customs House. That’s something like 400 free spaces not a million miles from the centre of town.
“As a result of that, a couple of signs have already been put up in Ocean Road and others will follow.
“I know these are difficult times, it would be stupid to suggest otherwise. If I was a trader I would be worried, and the truth is that footfall has fallen and we need more retail diversity.
“One of the problems is that the council doesn’t own the buildings in King Street. We don’t set the rates. We don’t set the rents, and I know they are stupidly high.
“We need to be positive too. Yes, the percentage of empty units is higher than we would want but every town centre is struggling and it is not as bad as in some other places. Progress is being made. Planning permission for the hub has gone in and we’re looking to start work in January. While acknowledging the difficulties, we need to start becoming positive and not be completely negative.
“People will see a huge difference. It is not going to happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process – but we’re determined to get it right.”
Coun Anglin, who represents the Beacon and Bents ward for Labour, said weekend summer craft fairs held at Harton Quays last month were one the innovative ways being used to generate footfall into the town centre.
More than 25 stalls packed full of crafts, homeware, jewellery, baked goods and textiles proved a hit with visitors.
It was an attempt to attract people who might traditionally come to South Shields for free Sunday concerts to head to the Riverside and into the town centre, before going to Bents Park.
Anyone with ideas around town regeneration is welcome to contact the council’s corporate lead on regeneration, John Sparkes, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org