£7.5m bid lined up for town centre

Berwick is a contender for a bid for Government funding which could deliver a £7.5million investment in the town centre.

Friday, 18th January 2019, 7:17 am
Shops in Marygate, Berwick Upon Tweed.

Northumberland County Council is planning to make a bid for a share of the £675million Future High Streets Fund (FHSF).

The idea has been welcomed by Berwick Town Council and is expected to be explored further by Berwick Regeneration Commission.

Town clerk Gareth Davies, speaking to the budget and administration committee on Monday, said: “The FHSF is a new proposal from Government which provides capital spending for town centres with a considerable retail component, like Berwick, to improve the high street and prepare it for the future.

“The indication we have had from partners is that if a bid proceeds from Northumberland, the expectation is that it would be a bid looking at a package of works for one town in the region of £7.5million.

“My belief from looking at the bid criteria is that Berwick at least has a chance of being the one town from Northumberland that is considered.

“Clearly that is a matter for Northumberland County Council to decide but when I’ve spoken to senior figures, both on the political side and the officer side, they have been warm to the idea that Berwick should at least be considered for this.”

It is understood other towns with similar or higher retail vacancy rates, such as Blyth and Ashington, and possibly Hexham, could also be contenders.

Coun Gregah Roughead told members: “We need to lobby for this at every opportunity to make sure Berwick is the town that gets this.”

Any bid would need to be based upon studies of the existing retail environment in Berwick, and upon innovative solutions to the issues of vacancy and under utilisation of the retail environment.

Several indicative ideas have been floated by officers as to how the money might be spent if the bid was successful.

One option might be building on the insights from the Buchanan report and other work, to take traffic off Golden Square roundabout by taking delivery traffic off Marygate by developing services roads behind Marygate on its south side, enabling delivery to the rear of premises that are currently landlocked.

A second option might be to look at the space inside and behind vacant properties on Marygate south side as being suitable to re-develop as an arcade type offer, providing a pedestrianised strip of new retail properties leading to either an anchor tenant or to an arts and cultural development around the Maltings site.

Another option might involve repurposing existing properties as arts and cultural workshops, venues or rehearsal and development areas. It would reflect the fact that some of Berwick’s shape and topography is built around industries and trades of previous years - hence the prominence of the Maltings and the Granary in the town centre’s layout.

A fourth option is seen as the least plausible solution since the town centre already has considerable housing interspersed with commercial and heritage spaces, but might involve a modern development behind the existing streetscape, perhaps involving a specialist provider of homes (perhaps for older or childless occupiers) as well as a refreshed retail offer.

Mr Davies said: “It needs to be stressed here that the retail environment in Berwick town centre is not all doom and gloom; the growth of Bridge Street as a quarter for independent traders is good evidence for the proposition that there is a demand for retail properties that are the right size, in the right place and which are suited to the needs of businesses who want them.

“Part of any study must be to understand whether there is a gap between the types of premises available on the main shopping streets and the type of premises new entrants to the market desire.

“Any retail property offer needs to address three elements; footfall, suitability and price. Any bid proposal should not automatically exclude the possibility that Berwick’s offer could be improved by an enhanced car parking or public transport offer, and FHSF documents cite examples of how this might be done, but any master planning on this scale would need to begin from an understanding of the constraints Berwick’s environment place upon any development.

“Any survey of the retail premises available in Berwick should not shrink from the possibility that there are empty buildings that are not suitable to the type of uses for which there is effective demand, or from the possibility that they are empty because they are overpriced.

“The fact that these buildings are not in demand for the kinds of uses being proposed at the Loaning Meadows development has been established by the reports prepared by the developers of Loaning Meadows, and there are no powers for local authorities to require possible users to occupy premises from which they do not wish to trade.

“The issue of dilapidation cannot be ignored either; premises which are not earning an economic rent for their owners are not likely to be well maintained or to offer a welcoming vista to visitors to the town and again, local government powers to intervene in these circumstances are limited.

“Officers have made clear to partners council’s ambitions to see Berwick thrive and prosper as a retail environment whilst acknowledging that tomorrow’s high street will only resemble the high street of the past if council’s ambition is to become another Beamish. There is no evidence that the current shift in consumer retail habits is temporary or reversible.”

The FHSF was announced in last October’s Budget and bids for it opened last month.

High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP said: “We all know high streets are changing, we can’t hide from this reality. But we’re determined to ensure they continue sit at the heart of our communities for generations to come.

“To do this we have to support investment in infrastructure, boosting local economies and ensuring people are able to get the most out of their local high streets. Empowering leaders on the ground is key too – they best understand the challenges facing their areas.

“Our Future High Streets Fund will drive forward this change, transforming our town centres into the thriving community hubs of the future.”

Places bidding for the Fund will be supported by the High Streets Task Force, which will be established in 2019 and will support local leadership.

Up to £55million of the Fund has also been allocated to support the regeneration of ‘heritage high streets’. Bids will help to restore historic high street properties for new work spaces or cultural venues.