New research study puts focus on Berwick

Town centres such as Berwick need to be viewed as public spaces which can be used for meeting and socialising as well as public events.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 13:56
Marygate in Berwick.

Those are the conclusions of a new research study into how to create thriving town centres.

North East England Chamber of Commerce and its partner, planning specialists Lichfields, compiled the report based on roundtable discussions in places with different characteristics – Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Berwick, Hexham and Stanley.

Empty shop units on Marygate, Berwick.

Among those who took part was Brenda Crowcroft, of No1 Woolmarket Antiques, who said: “Berwick has a lot of potential, given its historic setting and the various tourist attractions in north Northumberland.

“However, people could do more to promote it as a place to shop, eat and drink – too many people simply bypass the town centre.”

One of the most important routes to success which came out of the views, collected from a range of stakeholders and retailers themselves, was the need for town centres to create a distinct vision of what their future role should be, then plan for it.

Also among its key findings was the opinion that town centres need to expand what they offer, in particular for families, develop a USP, support independent shops and have a regular events programme.

Rachel Anderson, Chamber assistant director of policy said: “Town centres are going through a difficult time at present and to be successful they need to find new ways of working. Some of the changes we recommend will be easier than others, such as providing business support measures.

“There needs to be short, medium and long term goals set and genuine co-operation between all players including retailers, independents, national chains, local authorities and the private sector. We must have civic pride in our town centres and its everyone’s responsibility to achieve this if they are to thrive.”

Jonathan Wallace, senior director and head of Lichfields’ Newcastle office, said it had undertaken discussions with stakeholders in the region’s centres and analysed current trends and data in compiling the report.

The report finds that town centres are currently facing multiple challenges including from the growth in on-line shopping, increasing competition from out of centre stores and retail parks, and an ageing customer base.

It says more local authorities should use their powers to tackle long term issues of absentee landlords and dilapidated buildings, with this issue contributing to the knock-on effect of the loss of civic pride a thriving and well-presented town centre brings.

Mr Wallace believes all town centre stakeholders must work together to ensure their High Street is no longer viewed as merely a shopping destination.

“Many are now responding to the challenges by looking to other uses to fill the gaps left by retail – including leisure, cultural and community facilities – and it is important that this continues.

“Further thought and action needs to be given to viewing town centres as public spaces which can be used for meeting and socialising as well as public events, such as; live music and entertainment, speciality markets and other festivals.

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“By doing this, we can help to re-establish them as the heart of the community and somewhere people will naturally look to enjoy spending their free time,” he said.

Summary for Berwick upon Tweed

Berwick is a coastal market town of around 12,000 people situated in north Northumberland, near the Scottish border and just off the A1. The town has one of the lowest average wage levels in the country, largely due to the seasonality of work in the agricultural and tourism economies. Whilst footfall in the town is boosted in the summer months by tourists, these are largely for day trips with tourists staying elsewhere in towns nearby.

The Retail and Commercial Offer The town has a mix of independent shops and national retailers, though a number of comparison retail outlets have either closed or relocated, and retail parks and supermarkets have emerged in out-of-centre locations.

This has left several voids in large retail premises which are difficult to fill, and has resulted in a high unit vacancy rate.

There are various independent traders who do relatively well in the summer, but traders felt that there isn’t enough to hold the interest of visitors to the town and that the offer is not well co-ordinated.

Whilst there are also several restaurant and leisure operators, their position is precarious because of seasonal fluctuations, with the local population of the town being unable to support a significant number of leisure operators in the winter months.

Whilst the area benefits from tourism, there is potential to attract more of these tourists (including coach parties) into the town centre itself.

The quality of the shopping experience was identified as an issue, with many new openings at the lower end of the price spectrum, and the participants in the roundtable discussions felt that the retail offer at the middle and higher end of the market is limited and insufficient to reduce leakage from the town to other towns and cities. There may be scope to improve and expand the market and/or have speciality markets.

Stakeholders also raised concerns over the lack of shops and services to cater for everyday needs.

Investment in Properties

The look and cleanliness of the town centre, as well as rent and the use of buildings, is another concern. There was a view that too many of the town centre buildings are in the hands of a small number of owners and there is a lack of investment in properties. Northumberland County Council was also subject to criticism for moving office workers out of Berwick Town Centre, and failing to utilise the Council’s own buildings in the centre or to seek to rent them out to other businesses, which would have helped to maintain town centre vitality and viability.

Promotion of the Town Centre

In terms of co-operation amongst the retailers, there is an active Chamber of Trade but no real initiatives come from the retailers themselves, and there appears to have beeen little co-operation with Northumberland County Council. Whilst there was previously a Town Centre Manager, there is now no budget for this position, and no current plans for a Business Improvement District (BID). Generally, there was a feeling that more could be done to market the town and its historic setting by the River Tweed (including both general promotional activity and also signage directing people to the town centre itself ) as there is a lot of competition for spending between different destinations in Northumberland.