Stockton town centre bucked the national trend last year with shop openings outstripping closures in 2017, a new report has revealed.
And the report, from the Local Data Company (LDC), found Stockton was the only town centre in the North East to see a positive net change.
Yet the reverse was true in most places across the country, with closures eclipsing openings as the retail sector continues to come under strain.
The report comes just 16 months after Stockton High Street was crowned the ‘Rising Star’ of the Great British High Street of the Year Awards.
Retail consultant and founder at CannyInsights.com, Graham Soult, said: “Stockton is a place that could have gone into terminal decline on the back of some big-name stores leaving around 10 years ago.
“But it has benefited from several things. The first is a proactive local council that has invested in transforming the town centre, rather than moaning about it, and has then made sure that the beautiful environment it has created is properly maintained.
“There are lots of fantastic and very marketing-savvy independent retailers too, and a council-supported arcade – Fountain Shopping Mall – that is generating and nurturing new independent businesses, some of which go on to take their own retail space.
“Stockton has two very well-run shopping centres, both of which are constantly sharing positive messages about the town, and an excellent BID, which seems to command widespread support and is always supporting markets and other high-profile events.
“Crucially, all of these stakeholders are talking to each other, and have a clear and shared vision of what the town centre should look like.
“Yes, there are still issues – there are some longstanding voids and New Look is about to leave – but the transformation of the town compared to when I first visited in 2009 is remarkable.”
Councillor Bob Cook, leader of Stockton Council, said: “The report makes really encouraging reading, though we’re certainly not getting carried away.
“We know town centres are under great strain due to tough economic conditions and the popularity of online and out of town shopping.
“That’s why our regeneration of the High Street has been about delivering a town centre that offers different things. It’s been as much about hosting events, celebrating heritage and creating pleasant spaces as it has been about shopping.
“Council-led projects like the Globe restoration and new Hampton by Hilton are key to that and will attract the kind of visitor spending that will take things to the next level. The great work being done by the Stockton BID, and the support of BID members, is also critical to the town’s success.
“Of course, retail is still a vital part of the offer and we’ve had some success in growing our own independents to support the major brands we already have here and are working hard to keep here. And so for every Debenhams we’ve got a DRAKE – The Bookshop and for every Marks & Spencer we’ve got a Wags & Whiskers!
“Independents like these started out in what is now our Fountains Shopping Mall and they are now flourishing in their own town centre units. They help set us apart. But if we want them to survive – and this applies to any shops, whether they’re a huge brand or a small independent – we need people to use them by shopping local.
“It’s easy for people to have a pop at town centres but when it comes to the shops it’s very much a case of ‘use them or lose them’.”
Occupancy rates on Stockton High Street have held firm at around 82% over the last four years.
But challenges to fill empty units remain, with councils having very little power to break the stranglehold property owners often have on them.
“A common criticism of councils is that they should be doing more to fill empty shops,” added Councillor Cook.
“But what people don’t always realise is that we don’t actually own these buildings, nor do we set business rates, though we do offer a local business rates discount scheme and other financial support as an incentive to businesses to occupy empty town centre units.
“In fact, finding out who does own these units can lead to a very tangled web as they’re often tied up in offshore property portfolios or investment funds. And when you do track the owners down they’re quoting astronomical sums for sale or rent that are more in line with London prices than the North East of England.
“Sometimes they’ve never even seen the properties and aren’t even aware of where they are. And with dozens or hundreds of such properties to deal with I think they probably see them as a line on a spreadsheet rather than a site full of untapped potential.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, especially when the bigger picture in the town centre is actually pretty encouraging, but this is what we’re coming up against. We pride ourselves on being a business-friendly council but some of these absent owners have a stranglehold on empty units and we need powers to put it to an end.
“It’s something we’ll keep banging the drum about but we are hopeful that there’ll be positive developments in relation to some empty town centre units in the coming weeks.”