Independents in the north-east of England have called for action from local authorities to help fix the vacancy rates “crisis”, as more than 1,900 retail units lie empty in the region.
After the latest research by the Local Data Company (LDC) showed that the north-east had the highest proportion of vacant retail units in April this year, at 19.5%, Drapers submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the largest constituencies in the region.
Responses revealed 559 retail units were empty in the borough of Darlington on 30 June this year. In the administrative area of Sunderland City Council there were 409 vacant units and 104 in the borough of Hartlepool on the same date. Empty retail stores in Gateshead totalled 874 out of 6,744 as at 15 July – totalling 1,946 across the four constituencies.
South Tyneside Council (South Shields), Newcastle City Council (Newcastle upon Tyne) and Middlesbrough Council declined to respond to the FOI requests, while Durham County Council said it did not have the data as its latest “round of surveys” is still being undertaken.
Independents told Drapers that high parking charges and “astronomical” business rates have made it impossible for retailers to survive.
“There are swathes of boarded-up shops everywhere,” said Steve Cochrane, owner of Middlesbrough-based independent Psyche. “The situation is horrendous. Business rates have gone through the roof in the past two years, particularly in Durham and Middlesbrough. Parking charges are a massive deterrent for customers visiting the shops. It is driving customers online instead and making it even harder for us.”
The managing director of one designer independent in the region said “retailers are struggling to make ends meet”: “There are lots of empty retail units. We’re just left with banks and phone shops now. The business rates are an absolute fortune and the council needs to cut them so indies can stay alive.
“The car-parking charges are also astronomical. There should at least be free parking on a Sunday. The councils are doing nothing to drive traffic to the local towns and cities.”
He added: “Local councils have no idea how to run the town centres. They don’t care about the independents. It’s an absolute disgrace. They complain the high street is dying, yet they’re the ones that are killing it.”
Heather Scott, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said the council is “working hard to maintain and improve on the vibrancy” of the town centre.
A Hartlepool Borough Council spokeswoman said: “The council has a dedicated Enterprise Team, which provides a wide variety of business support services and advice to help businesses set up, develop and thrive. This, coupled with competitive rent levels for premises, has resulted in our retail unit vacancy rate being among the lowest in the region.”
Other north-east councils listed were also contacted for comment.
Property experts said there has been a “spiral of decline” in the north-east since the 2008 financial crash because of deprivation and a lack of affordability and jobs.
“Once an area starts to decline, it is hard to arrest that process,” said Jonathan De Mello, head of retail consultancy at Harper Dennis Hobbs.
“There is not a level of pull and retail draw in many of the towns, and the shopping centres don’t provide the type of innovative retail offering that is needed nowadays. Independents have also been hit by business rates. Councils need to help with these issues.”
Tom Whittington, Savills retail research director, added: “The problems in the north-east are well known, such as demographic, lack of investment, deprivation, etc, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have good nuggets of places within it. These are long-term trends.”
He added that councils must be “proactive” and “aggressive” moving forward.
Drapers Investigates: The state of independents
Drapers is launching its first survey of the independent market to look beyond the shop floor and to produce a comprehensive overview of the sector.
We will use the data to identify challenges independents face and to obtain views on local and national support for small business owners.
All answers will be treated anonymously and off the record. If you are happy for us to contact you about your answers, please include your email address.
The survey closes on 11 October and the results will be published in Drapers.
Go to bit.ly/DrapersIndieSurvey to take the survey.
Drapers FOI responses
- The number of retail units in Gateshead on 15 July 2019: 6,744
- The number of empty retail units in Gateshead on 15 July 2019: 874
- The number of retail units in the borough of Darlington on 30 June 2019: 3,838
- The number of empty retail units in the borough of Darlington on 30 June 2019: 559
- The number of retail units within the administrative area of Sunderland City Council on 30 June 2019: 3,106
- The number of empty retail units within the administrative area of Sunderland City Council on 30 June 2019: 409
- The number of retail units in Hartlepool on 30 June 2019: 848
- The number of empty retail units in Hartlepool on 30 June 2019: 104
North-east indies call for action on empty shops