HARTLEPOOL’S mayor says he agrees with ideas of a retail TV guru to breathe new life into town centres – but says they are unrealistic for cash-strapped councils.
Mayor Stuart Drummond spoke out after Mary Portas, television’s Queen of Shops, laid down a number of proposals in a Government-backed report on how to rescue retail centres.
She listed free parking, market stalls, a curb on bookies, better rents and a clampdown on new out-of-town developments as key plans for change.
But Mayor Drummond said that although he agreed with the proposals, the reality is that Hartlepool Borough Council, and other local authorities, simply do not have enough money to offer ideas such as “all-out” free parking.
He said: “This is a problem that we’ve been grappling with for a number of years now and obviously Hartlepool suffers more than most with empty shops.
“We’ve tried initiatives with free parking on Sundays and after 4pm, but if we were to go for all out free parking then something else would have to give to make way for it. The council couldn’t just afford to offer it for free.
“As for rents then it comes down to the landlords what they are going to charge, it’s very difficult to have an influence on that.”
He added: “Things like the internet have a huge effect on the high street, with a 25 per cent increase in internet shopping this Christmas to last year.
“And well established out-of-town developments also have an effect.
“These factors are impossible for me or any councillors to change.
“It’s very easy to say what should be done but the reality is very different. I agree, but it’s very hard because of financial restraints.”
Back in September, Hartlepool was revealed as one of the worst towns in the country for its number of empty shops.
It ranked third-worst of Great Britain’s medium-sized towns for vacancy rates.
The Shop Vacancy Report, carried out by retail analysts the Local Data Company, showed 27.9 per cent of all Hartlepool’s town centre shops were empty during the survey, conducted between January and June this year.
Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, who refers to the situation is his weekly Mail column today, said he agreed with most of Portas’ points and admitted he felt the time was right to try and breathe new life into the town.
Mr Wright said: “We have to adapt to modern times, and this is not just about Hartlepool because problems with empty shops are commonplace across the country. It is frightening to see the empty shops on lots of high streets.
“As a town, we have to ask how important is our town centre? It shouldn’t just be about shopping, it should be a hub of the community, a place for people to meet and socialise.
“But there are hard choices to be made, expecially when you consider the financial restraints we are all working under now.
“I think the Portas report is very important and makes some good points and I would welcome any initiative which got everyone around the table to discuss a way forward.”
Mary Portas’ key proposals include:
l Town teams of landlords, councillors and shopkeepers to set out clear visions for town centres;
l Slash red tape to allow anyone to set up a market stall;
l Curb the number of betting shops in town centres;
l Planning rules to favour town centre developments;
l Clampdown on out of town developments;
l Encourage landlords to offer better rents;
l More flexible parking schemes;
l Store chains should spell out support for high streets.
l MP writes: Page 14