Shock figure spurred council into action

MARTIN SWALES ... the council chief executive believes "the worst is behind us".
MARTIN SWALES ... the council chief executive believes "the worst is behind us".

A SHOCKING statistic persuaded council leader Iain Malcolm and chief executive Martin Swales that radical action was needed to breathe new life into South Shields town centre.

Research revealed that a mere 3.7 per cent of townfolk’s disposable income was being spent within the town centre.

That cash was instead bolstering out-of-town shopping complexes such as the MetroCentre in Gateshead and Eldon Square in Newcastle.

It is a statistic the two men are determined to improve.

That’s when an ambitious £100m masterplan was created, aiming to change the town’s fortunes and make it the North East’s “premier coastal resort”.

Now the aim is that a series of massive improvements to the town’s infrastructure over the next decade will ensure that at least 10 per cent of residents’ spare income is spent locally.

Radical plans include a new retail outlet in Fowler Street, which will require the demolition of the town’s central Post Office, a riverside hotel, a new central library on the site of Wouldhave House, a Market Square open space, a six-screen cinema and leisure facility in Chapter Row, and a much-improved Metro and bus interchange.

The ambitious vision – titled South Shields 365 – was launched this week in front of 100 delegates from businesses across South Tyneside, at One Trinity Green in South Shields.

Coun Malcolm said: “Like high streets across the country, South Shields town centre is facing major challenges as a result of the rise of online shopping, out-of-town retail parks and the tough economic climate.

“These threats have reduced town centre footfall and the shocking fact is that for every £100 of disposable income in their pockets, our residents spend only £3.70 in South Shields town centre.

“It has become clear that the town centre needs to change if it is to prosper.

“Our vision for South Shields is to make it a place of year-round cultural, leisure and retail activity for residents, businesses and visitors.

“We recognise the need to offer an experience that people cannot get on the internet or at town retail parks.”

The council is now seeking a strategic partner to push forward South Shields 365.

Finance to cover the costs of the project is to come via that partner, council resources and from government grants.

Discussions are ongoing with three potential national and international developers, and the aim is to identify a successful partner by April.

Council chief executive Martin Swales, who this week marks three years in the job, has overseen £55m of council cost savings over the last two years – with another £12m-worth of cuts anticipated in the next financial year.

Over that period, more than 1,000 council jobs have been shed.

But Mr Swales believes the “worst is behind us” as he looks forward to a brighter 2013.

He said: “We have come up with a plan to enliven the town centre so that for 365 days a year it is a place to visit, to bring your family and to spend money.”

Twitter: @shieldsgazpaul