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What does the future hold for our high streets? Commercial property professionals have come together to suggest the way forward for one North-East town. Julie Wallin reports

  • 11 December 2014
  • Author: James
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EVEN before the worst recession in a generation hit retailers four years or so ago, the challenges facing town centres across the country had been mounting.

How can traditional high streets hope to compete with the growth in out-of-town retail parks and the explosion in internet shopping?

The Government’s answer was to enlist Mary Portas – Mary Queen of Shops – to come up with a solution. The result was the Portas Review back in 2011, in which the retail expert presented the view that it was not a question of needing to revive the High Street, but to create a new one.

As a chartered surveyor, active in the Darlington market for more than ten years, I share that view. Darlington is a good example of a town centre which is struggling with the challenges of competing in the modern retail world.

In my time in business, I don’t remember so many empty shops coming onto the market in primary and secondary town centre locations.

We are in the middle of a retail crisis and, frankly, something fundamental has to change.

The world has moved on and we either move with it or die.

A meeting of landlord clients and local planning consultants was recently arranged in Darlington to air concerns and exchange ideas on what could be done. It quickly became clear that there are common concerns and beliefs about the changes which are necessary.

It isn’t rocket science, but it does require bold leadership from the town’s authorities and the need for greater flexibility on planning consent was a consistent theme.

A survey of vacant, available ground floor retail space in the Darlington core town centre area recently revealed more than 76,000sq ft. That is a lot of space to fill in a shrinking retail market. However, there are potential occupiers to fill these gaps.

From my own company’s experience of inquiries for retail space, charity shops, restaurants, coffee shops and betting shops, plus small independent retailers, have the largest appetite.

However, there are planning constraints which are stopping properties in designated retail areas being let. A lack of flexibility over change of use applications are making it increasingly difficult for landlords to find suitable tenants.

As a result, we have an increasing stalemate and there was a clear feeling at the meeting in Darlington that a forum was required – involving councillors, planners, landlords and agents – to debate what is clearly a vital issue for the future prosperity of the town. It is in all our interests to find some answers.

Planning inflexibility was not, however, the only concern aired at our meeting. Bringing vibrancy back to Darlington town centre depends on a collection of ideas and activities, and parking is seen as a major issue.

MARKET stall holders are not allowed to park their vehicles near their stands, and parking enforcement is seen as over-zealous, with shoppers in fear of being penalised if they are a few minutes late returning to their cars.

To encourage motorists – the modern shoppers – we believe there is a need to seriously consider disc parking, as well as designated 30- minute parking bays to enable shoppers to collect their purchases. We simply have to make it more convenient to shop – not make it more difficult or intimidating.

In summary, it is time for serious debate and for meaningful change. A Government initiative in May has introduced some relaxation of planning restrictions, albeit for only two years and subject to size and location.

It represents a crumb of encouragement, but is it realistic to expect it to make a real difference and be workable with no guarantee that planning permission will be given after the two-year window?

Grasping the nettle now before it is too late in terms of local policy is needed to reflect the times that are rapidly changing. The fact is that national occupiers are retreating from our high streets and a recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, commissioned from the Local Data Company, claims that town centres are transforming from pure shopping destinations to “centres of leisure and services”. The suggestion is that the high street will gradually become a place to eat and consume services.

If that trend continues, there will have to be greater incentives for smaller independents to take up vacant units and create a different kind of shopping experience off the back of the growing demand for leisure uses.

Landlords are doing their bit by offering many more incentives to keep existing tenants and find new ones. These include extended rent-free periods, stepped rents, rent reductions, and sharing or carrying out improvement works for tenants. But, on their own, those measures are not enough.

Darlington has much to commend it. It is a nice town with first-class communication links, serving a prosperous and largely loyal catchment area. If national and local policies are flexible and supportive, then the town can adapt and prosper in a new and challenging environment.

But without change, there is the very real prospect that we will be faced with more empty units, shuttered facades and quieter shopping streets. We are prepared to take up the challenge in taking our town centre forward. It is hoped that those in control will share that aspiration before it is too late.

  • Julie Wallin is a director at Carver Commercial Chartered Surveyors in Darlington. This article has been written with the support of Steve Barker, MD Prism Planning; Beckside Properties Ltd; John Joyce, MG Estates; Peter Robinson, Thomas Watson Auctioneers; Torben Simpson, landlord and property consultant MRICS BSc Hons; Peter Smyth; Marcus Stone, Fairacre – Asset Manager, Queen Street Shopping Centre; Grahame Yarrow, Capital Holdings.
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