TOWN Hall bosses have put plans to cover King Street in South Shields back on the drawing board.
South Tyneside’s major shopping thoroughfare suffered a blow this week when Marks & Spencer announced plans to close.
The decision by the retail giant to to shut the store after 80 years and transfer the 37 staff to its premises in Silverlink, North Tyneside, has been met with widespread dismay and seen as a setback to the ambitious £100m 365 regeneration plans for South Shields town centre.
Now council leader Iain Malcolm has revealed he has asked development partner Muse to look at the viability of carrying out work to cover King Street.
An indoor complex could help attract more shoppers to town in times of bad weather.
Coun Malcolm admits he is personally sceptical that covering the centre would be either financially or structurally viable.
But he said: “It is something that has been talked about in the past and I have asked Muse to look at it.
“Given the number of leaseholders in the street I think it would be very problematic logistically.
“For every person who supports a cover there is another objecting to it because of the beautiful architecture above the shop units and because it would be too claustrophobic.
“I have doubts it would work, but we’ll take a look at it.”
Despite negativity about King Street’s future, Coun Malcolm remains upbeat about its prospects.
He added: “Yes, the decision by Marks & Spencer is disappointing, but one store does not a town centre make.
“There are still fabulous traders in town - Northern Threads, Greenwoods, River Island, Burtons, Smiths the jewellers. It’s in a much better position than many other towns in the North East.”
And Coun Malcolm believes the 365 aim of creating a night time economy “after five” will in time help revitalise the shopping thoroughfare.
Coun George Elsom, the leader of the opposition on South Tyneside Council, thinks covering King Street could be an option - but believes a lack of free parking is at the heart of its decline.
He said: “Totally covering the area, as at The Galleries in Washington and The Bridges in Sunderland, could be one option. There’s good trade in the summer, but in the winter period it is less viable.
“I question the whole ethos of the 365 plan for not incorporating King Street. It is the main focus of the town. What do people see when they arrive on the Metro in South Shields? King Street.
“Not grasping King Street and making it the hub of the plan is a weakness, I believe.”
Coun Elsom, who represents Cleadon Park in South Shields, also believes there is a lack of retail diversity in the town centre.
He said: “I believe that parking is a major issue and if there wasn’t a charge for parking more people would use the town centre. I am appalled and saddened at this decision.
“You just have to look at the quality of shops. There are pound shops, cards shops, telephone shops - the street is dying a death.”
Merv Butler, branch secretary of Unison South Tyneside, said he hoped South Tyneside Council through its South Shields 365 masterplan could do something “mitigate” M&S’s exit.
He said: “It is a well-used store by our members who buy their lunches and ready-meals for the week there.
“It’s clearly central to South Shields as a shopping centre.
“While recognising that clearly there are other alternatives in the form of Asda and Morrisons, we can only hope the council through 365 can do something to mitigate its loss.”