A South Tyneside MP has launched her own blueprint for the future of a troubled town centre- after two more high street traders closed in a matter of days.
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck wants a retail rebirth - starting with free, struggling King Street put under cover and the compulsory purchase of long-term empty shops.
The Labour politician spoke out out after South Shields was hit by the double blow - the collapse of national chain BHS, which had a prime spot in the town’s Waterloo Square, and the Thornton’s store in King Street.
Mrs Lewell-Buck is calling on the Government to give South Tyneside Council the cash to finance compulsory purchase orders and says free parking should be a priority to kick-start trade in the meantime. She is is also pressing the Government to lower business rates.
She says says she is echoing the views of the businesses still left on King Street after a worrying exodus of big name brands in recent years.
Mrs Lewell-Buck said; “The town centre is something we cherish.
People are frustrated - they want to see action and they want it quickly.Emma Lewell-Buck MP
“If we adopt ideas such as free parking, perhaps starting with it beingfree after 3pm, this could be a way to increase footfall.
“We also have to look at the fact that people’s shopping habits are changing. You only have to look at the success of the Metro Centre and the Bridges in Sunderland. We could have a mini-MetroCentre in South Shields.
“People want to see action and they want it quickly.”
Mrs Lewell-Buck has called for the Government to provide Councils with financial support to help them press ahead with regeneration plans.
She added; “BHS was a unique case as it was a national collapse, but the same can’t be said for many of the other businesses who have left the town.
“There is a huge knock-on effect. If people working in the town centre lose their jobs, they don’t spend money in the shops. I love my town and I want it to thrive.
“I have spoken to the staff and the chief executives of all the shops who remain in the town centre and they would like to see changes made in the heart of the town to improve footfall.
Emma Fielding, manager of Shoezone in King Street, said: “I do think free parking in the town centre would be a good idea. An indoor shopping centre would also be an interesting idea and is something that should be discussed.”
Tom Gray, sales assistant at Northern Threads in Ocean Road, says free parking is a must - but feels big name brands must be lured back to the town before a indoor shoping hub could get off the ground.
He said: “Free parking would be a good first step. But we have lost a lot of big name brands in the last couple of years and we would need to get businesses back in the town if there was to be an indoor shopping centre.”
A spokesman for South Tyneside Council said: “The Council recognises the challenges facing town centres and the ongoing 365 regeneration project will help to sustain the town and provide a broad visitor offer.
“Some vacant properties on King Street, which include the former Game and Mothercare units, are included in the ongoing Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). If the CPO is successful, these buildings will be demolished to enable the new leisure and retail development around Barrington Street to be delivered.
“Linking the new retail and leisure developments with the traditional shopping area of King Street is an integral element of the scheme and will provide an improved retail offer and visitor experience.
“Our parking strategy for the town centre is balanced, offering a mix of free and paid for spaces.
“Business rates will form a key part of future local government funding under proposals put forward by government. At present it is hard to see any scope for reductions in local business rates as South Tyneside will need to have its rates income ‘topped up’ in any future scheme if it is to continue to provide adequate local services’.”
Grim parade of closures
South Shields town centre has been hit by a lengthy shopping list of business closures in recent years.
The commercial jewel in King Street, Marks and Spencer, closed its doors closed its high street store amid deep dismay from customers and political figures alike in March, 2014 - sparking a 2,000 strong petition in a vain bid to keep the supermarket giants in the town.
They were followed out of the town by Mothercare, the mother-and-baby products outlet, just weeks later, with jewellers and pawnbrokers Herbert Brown and Son also bringing down the shutters after the firm slumped into administration.
Internacionale, the women’s clothes brand, also followed suit in June 2014 with fellow fashion brand Officers Club closing in January of this year.
The Thorntons branch in the street closed up for the final time on Saturday.
South Tyneside Council is leading the regeneration of South Shields through the £100m 265 Masterplan scheme, a wholesale revamp of the town centre, including a new cinema, new library and digital media centre, improvements to Market Square, and a new integrated transport Interchange on the site of the current bus and Metro terminal.
But South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck is eager to ensure that King Street traders aren’t left lagging behind in the race for renewal.
She wants the struggling area to be given a new lease of life, with reduced business rates and free parking paving the way for a thriving indoor shopping hub.