Money to ‘level up’ struggling high streets in the North East

HIGH streets in our region are set for a major boost with money from the Government.

Three high streets across the North East have been awarded up to £55.9 million, to help them implement ambitious local plans to transform their high streets.

The Government confirmed today that the changes are to last for generations to come.

Bishop Auckland is one of the biggest winners in our region, receiving £19.9 million to improve its transport, hospitality and leisure offering while bringing vacant properties back to life.

Also getting the full funding bid is Sunderland, which received £25 million to transform the city centre with a new state-of-the-art library, creative labs and a local history centre.

Provisional funding offers went to Stockton, set to receive £16,543,812, and Middlesbrough and Loftus, with £14,170,352 earmarked for each town centre.

South Shields has been given a provisional offer of £5,959,187 and Blyth will get the full £11.1million it wants for cultural facilities and bus depot improvements.

The funds will help town centres by improving transport and access and converting retail units into new homes.

The plans will deliver long-term impacts that drive growth, raise living standards and ultimately help level up the regions.

It is also hoped that the money will help support areas to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and transform underused town centres into more vibrant places.

The announcement comes as Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, confirmed allocations of up to £830 million to regenerate high streets across England as part of the Government’s flagship £1 billion Future High Streets Fund.

The local plans involve improvements to transport infrastructure, new homes, job creation, and the transformation of underused spaces.

Minister for High Streets Kelly Tolhurst said: “The year ahead will be an exciting one for high streets across the North East, with Government investing across the region to boost its much-loved town centres, creating spaces communities can be proud of and delivering on our Plan for Jobs.

“Bishop Auckland will receive nearly £20 million to re-energise its town centre and improve the town’s connectivity, hospitality, and leisure offering.”

“We’re levelling up every part of the country to deliver opportunity and prosperity and I am proud that the North East will benefit from this important investment.”

Simon Clarke MP for Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East said: “Today’s announcement is exactly what we mean when we talk about levelling up – we are committed to raising opportunity across the UK.

“In our area, after decades of Labour inaction and neglect, we are doing everything we can to make us all proud once again to be from Tees Valley.

“This is truly excellent news for both Loftus and Middlesbrough – we should welcome it with open arms as we look towards a brighter future for the whole of the Tees Valley.”

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Bishop Auckland’s high street has been in a decline for some time. Many older residents remember the flourishing high street once home to department stores like the famous Doggarts.

Bishop Auckland has one of the longest high streets in the North East, but according to one local councillor around 22 per cent of the properties on Newgate street are vacant.

Historian Robert McManners said: “Bishop Auckland was always a grand day out; it was a posh place to go.

“It was a focal point for the dale and markets ran on Saturday and Thursdays.

“Fore Bondgate has always been a great place, they said you could get anything there from a pin to a motor car.

“We had all the high street brands of the day but now they are disappearing too.

“I think everyone has to engage with what’s being done in the town, we have to plan with all that in mind.

“We are a town worth fighting for and we will gradually get where we need to be.”

However, despite the decline of the marketplace and Newgate Street some parts of the town have been improving. Bondgate has had its share of ups and downs but is currently thriving with small independent businesses.

Sam Zair who runs Zair’s café on Fore Bondgate said: “As the supermarkets expanded their range and out of town shopping centres arrived, small shops and markets vacated the high street.

“However, Fore Bondgate has come on well over the last few years. Newgate street has got some bad areas where a lot of retailers have left and it does not look good, I think it puts people off investing.

“To have a successful high street we need to get independents back alongside the big shops and have a mix.

“Bishop is lucky to have a good tourism sector, but you need businesses to fill vacant places. First impressions mean a lot and we need to impress so that people will come back and spend.”

“I just hope this money is used wisely and is invested where it is designed to be used, on the high street.

“With this and other investments starting to filter through Bishop Auckland is in a healthier place than most high streets.”

Some residents believe the rise of out-of-town shopping centres and the internet that has lead to an inevitable decline of the high street. Both mean there is little incentives for people to visit the high street, and therefore very little to incentivise businesses to move in.

Barry Coates from Windrow Sports: “We’ve seen shops come and go, but we want shops to stay longer.

“I don’t know the answer to what will save the high street. Businesses can’t stay because they can’t afford the rates, in the long term.

“The retail park has not helped. it does bring people into the area, they are just going to the wrong part of town for us.

“When the Metrocentre was built a lot of people flocked there and it was great, now it is in decline due to high rates and the more shops pull out the more the rates go up.

“With out-of-town shopping centres in decline due to online shopping, there is a future for independents both new and established.”

With big names such as Debenhams and the Arcadia group entering administration in 2020, many high streets are a bracing for a difficult future. However, with the decline of the big high street names, smaller, independent retailers can benefit.

Many independent retailers have opened on Bondgate in the last few years.

Alex Roberts of the shop Head in the Clouds said: “We have had to change how we do things this year, and when we reopened, we had a lot of people come back to us and support independent shops.

“We are more specialist and can help our customers find what they want, our products are unique to us.

“Five new businesses have moved into the street since we have been here, which is really good.

“I think the best thing to improve our high street is to make a lot of the closed and vacant premises presentable. There are many buildings that don’t look very attractive and I think that’s what puts people off opening a business in them.”

The Northern Echo | Durham