Tees Talk

What is wrong with UK high streets and how do they need to change to secure a bright future?

That’s the question we put to eight of the Tees region’s business, retail and local authority leaders…

Steve Cochrane OBE, chief executive, Psyche

“People’s spending habits are changing and the high streets, including many retailers, have rested on their laurels for too long. There are too many shops and there’s too much on offer, so the correction is long overdue.
“Our high streets can have a bright future but they have to change to meet the demands of the consumer. Big department stores have been particularly slow to evolve but it’s vital retailers give consumers as many different ways to buy as possible.
“At the same time, rates should be abolished and replaced with something that reflects a percentage of the business’s turnover. It’s going to be painful and more big names will go but I’m confident there’ll be plenty of opportunities in 2019.”

Graeme Skillen, manager, Cleveland Centre

“The current challenges facing UK high streets are the rise of online shopping, which has had a huge impact on consumer habits, and the impact of business rates on retailers. To survive, high streets need to evolve, and I believe they’re now doing this, albeit slightly too late for some.
“Smaller, independent businesses need to be nurtured to ensure we create the shops of the future. Local authorities need to review business rates and look at incentives for the retail sector. Retailers need to offer an improved customer experience for shoppers, including the store environment itself and levels of customer service.”

Neil Schneider, chief executive, Stockton Council

“Out of town centres – which incredibly are still receiving planning approval – online shopping and supermarkets that sell almost everything are having a huge impact on our high streets. Business rates together with high rent and lease costs forced by property investors are providing challenges for retailers, while nearly 200 UK shopping centres are reportedly on the brink of going into administration.
“Our town centres need to shrink retail space and be repurposed as big community hubs where retail plays a part. Every town centre needs to define its own unique offer by looking into its heritage and the communities they serve. In Stockton, we have a twice-weekly market, a speciality market programme, a programme of events and performances.”

Michelle McPhee, City centre manager, Middlesbrough Council

“It is all too easy to point the finger of blame at the rise of online retailing and out-of-town shopping. These channels are a fact of life and are going nowhere anytime soon. The approach Middlesbrough is taking is to supplement the assets of the high street, giving visitors an experience they can never get from the alternatives.
“We are tailoring our strategy to appeal to consumer wants, as well as their needs. People want to dine with friends, catch a show, try new experiences, engage with culture and be social. High streets need to deliver more of this type of activity.”

Nigel Willis, managing director, First Choice Labels

“I think the high street of the future is going to be made up of niche shops offering unique items tailored to their particular customers’ wants and needs. Good examples would be the growth in cafés and shops catering for food allergies and destination shops such as Black Slab in Redcar, offering a mixture of vinyl and fashion.
“The high street will have to work hard to keep customers engaged in the face of technological competition. The draw of cheap prices together with home delivery via the internet will simply be too strong to compete with. Most household items will be supplied by out-of-town supermarkets offering free parking and discount prices.”

Joe Darragh, head of commercial property, Mandale

“For me, the retail parks are winning. Local councils and central government need to abolish business rates, reduce rents and clamp down on aggressive traffic wardens.
“They should give landlords grants to make their properties more attractive because too often councils spend money on the town or city centres but landlords don’t spend a penny on their properties. Without real change, it’s understandable that retailers will locate to an out-of-town retail park rather that a tatty town centre property.”

Richard Wilson, senior associate partner, Dodds Brown

“The challenges affecting town centres will not go away. Every town centre is different and requires its own bespoke vision and action plan, but creating new anchors, broadening the offer and an events programme should be part of any strategy to help reduce an over reliance on retail.
“Middlesbrough is already adapting by creating new anchors with developments like Centre Square, Boho Next Generation, Albert North and the Sub Zero snow centre, and with public events like the Orange Pip Market. The next stage is to attract quality residential development.”

Peter Walker, owner, Curing House

“The problem with the UK’s high streets is that they are all virtually the same. In every town and city we see the same brands and chains. The solution is for a break from the norm – a unique offer in every town, with independent businesses providing interesting and diverse products and services.
“We need tailors, shoemakers and jewellers making and selling their own goods alongside quality entertainment. Modern consumers are looking for experiences so a visit to the high street needs to satisfy that. Local and national governments need to make it easier for people with ideas to bring them to market.”

Cllr Bob Norton, cabinet member for economic growth, Redcar & Cleveland Council

“Online shopping and out-of-town retail has hurt town centres nationwide. In Redcar and Cleveland, we’re working with local traders through our High Street Support Scheme, which offers grant funding to bring units back into use, while we’ve launched a place marketing project to change perceptions of our borough.
“Developing high streets as centres for activities other than retail, such as leisure and event spaces, can drive people into the centres and support the shops. A combination of retail and leisure, and – where appropriate – residential is key.”


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