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'It's time to step in and take control' - rallying cry as Council gets set to spearhead town centres fightback

03 December 2018

Everybody knows high streets are in desperate need of help.

Image of to let sign

The rise of online and out of town shopping has prompted a mass exodus of big names, leaving gaps in high streets across the country.

It's clear that high streets need radical change, with local people, national newspapers and retailers themselves all calling for more to be done.

But where is that change going to come from?

Next week, councillors in Stockton-on-Tees will set out ambitious plans to lead a fightback across the Borough's town centres.

By stepping in to buy key sites and assets, the Council can take local control and get on with the job of changing town centres for the better.

"If we don't step in, nobody else will," said Councillor Nigel Cooke, the Council's Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Housing.

"We're passionate about our town centres - they need our help and we want to give it."

What is being proposed?

Councillors will be asked to approve borrowing of up to £30million to enable the authority to take advantage of opportunities to buy key sites and assets in the Borough's town centres as and when they arise.

Councillors will also be asked to approve the first of those acquisitions, details of which have to be confidential for now.

In addition, they will be asked to approve the use of existing town centres funds to demolish the former Glam and Post Office buildings in Stockton High Street, and to make a bid to the Government's recently announced Future High Streets Fund to support further changes in the Borough's town centres.

Why does the Council want to step in?

"High streets are not dead - but they will die if we don't intervene," said Councillor Cooke. "We aren't prepared to just sit back and watch that happen. It is our duty to help. That duty is not only to the places themselves, but to future generations too.

"Everybody can see what's happening in our town centres and time and again I see and hear local people calling for something to be done to save them. Retailers are campaigning for it. National newspapers are campaigning for it. 

"We agree. And we want to do even more about it.

"The problem we've got is we currently have very little influence over key sites and properties in our town centres because, contrary to what a lot of people think, we don't actually own them.

"Yet we are seeing opportunities come up to buy these assets and so this is about committing funding so we are in a position to step in and take control of them as and when those opportunities arise.

"These are our town centres and we have a clear picture of how they can succeed. Committing to this investment puts us in position to make it happen."

What do you mean by 'change'?

"If you think about it, high streets have relied on 'bricks and mortar' shops for more than 200 years," said Councillor Cooke. "Then bang, in the space of a few short years there's this almost dizzying shift to online and out of town shopping and everyone's scrambling to adjust.

"The most obvious effect of that change is that town centres can't just be about shops any more. There is a need to 'repurpose' them. Yes, shops are still important but there have to be other things that bring people into our town centres.

"To our credit, we've always had our eye on this and it's why we've invested in having leisure facilities, theatres, and libraries with customer service centres in the hearts of our town centres.

"It's also why we've invested in public artwork, eye-catching lighting schemes, pleasant spaces like Stockton's fountains and in growing our year-round events programme.

"And it's why we continue to invest in new attractions like the Globe and Hampton by Hilton hotel.

"These are all changes that we've directly led and they've earned us national recognition - whether it be in the form of visits from parliamentary delegations or featuring in national reports - as a forward-thinking council that's doing positive things to support its town centres.

"Imagine the position we'd be in if we hadn't done any of this. Nobody else would have done it for us and if we don't take control and continue to drive change ourselves, nobody else will."

Shouldn't the private sector be leading this?

"We care deeply about our town centres and unlike many of the absent private landlords who own the shops currently standing empty, it hurts us to see them blighting the place," said Councillor Cooke.

"If we do nothing, we are going to be left with more and more empty shops because in our experience, they are being left to rot by private landlords who don't know the area. Some of them couldn't care less and they are doing very little to actually fill them.

"So if you think positive change, or vision on the scale needed is going to come from private owners, then think again. You only need look at the countless privately-owned sites stagnating in town centres across the country to see that's never going to happen.

"It's down to us. The position we're in is more than a strong position, it's a unique position. And we can lead the fightback."

Does this mean the Council is looking to bring big name shops back?

"We are looking to support retail but we'd be foolish to promise that we're going to bring all the shops back," said Councillor Cooke. "That's simply beyond our control and we have to be very careful about managing people's expectations.

"In fact, people's traditionally-held view that every high street should be packed with big name brands is one of our biggest problems. It's a tough message to get across but those days are gone and they're not coming back.

"Yes, town centres will always have shops - we've still got our fair share of big name brands in the Borough, and we've been hugely encouraged to see lots of independents setting up and thriving, some of which we've helped start-up.

"But town centres won't need as much retail space as they once did. In some cases, new uses can be found for empty retail space but in other cases, it will make more sense to demolish the buildings altogether and use that land for something else.

"The former Post Office and Glam nightclub are a good example of that - those big eyesore buildings were never going to interest new occupants and are better off flattened and the site cleared.

"That opens up all sorts of possibilities for how we might use the site - it could be turned into a 'pocket park' or other kinds of community use, or alternatively for car parking or housing. We'll be seeking people's views on the future of town centres.

"Again, it's only by taking more control that we can influence that type of change, and if we don't, those buildings just stand empty and blighting the High Street for years."

Will these acquisitions affect Council Tax?

"There will be no impact on Council Tax," said Councillor Cooke. "We can say that because we will only borrow to make acquisitions where the borrowing costs will be covered by the income we generate through owning the assets.

"And we will only progress acquisitions that stand up to the closest of scrutiny, the most thorough due diligence and the most expert independent analysis.

"In fact, we fully expect the first of the acquisitions to actually make us money but that's not what we're in it for. Our main motivation is to continue the change and regeneration of our town centres. It is only right that we are clear about this."

What do businesses think?

As you can see in our video, businesses are giving this a very warm welcome.


What happens next?

The proposal will be considered at a special meeting of the Council's Cabinet at 4.30pm on Wednesday, December 12.

If agreed by Cabinet, the proposal will then be considered by Full Council when it meets at 7pm that same evening.