Doubts over high street revamp plan

TOWN mayor Stuart Drummond has questioned whether a TV celebrity’s bid to revamp the high street will work.

Hartlepool Borough Council has been awarded £100,000 to help revitalise the town centre as part of the £10m High Street Innovation Fund.

It comes after Mary Portas, a retail advisor, journalist and TV presenter, was approached by the Government to help rejuvenate the country’s retail sector.

Mayor Drummond, speaking as portfolio holder for regeneration, economic development and skills, welcomed the funding, but said there was nothing new to come out of it.

He has also ruled out scrapping car parking charges as one option to encourage more shoppers.

The Portas Review recommends the establishment of “town teams” to bring together landlords, retailers, council officers and community representatives to drive forward the improvements.

Local authorities are also being urged to look at using their powers to provide business rate discounts to small businesses and independent retailers.

Mayor Drummond said: “Much of what came out of it was blatantly obvious and much of it is being done anyway.

“A lot of the recommendations are supposed to transform the high street, but it has been done before and is not working.”

The funding can be used to support start-up businesses taking on empty properties, temporary enterprises that will occupy vacant units and apprenticeship schemes.

Regeneration officers said the programme is at an early stage in Hartlepool, but a working group has been created to produce an action plan.

Ideas so far centre around apprenticeship schemes, targeting empty shops and improving the signage.

Officers also want to encourage more people from outside of town to use Hartlepool town centre.

Damien Wilson, the council’s assistant director of regeneration and planning, said re-invigorating the high street in the current economic climate is going to be a difficult task, especially with the high levels of unemployment.

Around a fifth of commercial units in Hartlepool town centre are vacant.

Car parking is also a key area and councils are being encouraged to review parking provisions and charges.

But Mayor Drummond ruled out scrapping car parking fees in the town centre because it generates about £1.2m in income for the council.

He said: “You would think if you make it free parking you get lots of people in, but there is no evidence to back that up.

“It is a hit that we cannot afford to take at the moment.

“That is a non-starter.”

The Portas Review was published last December in response to rising town centre vacancy rates, the challenge of out-of-town shopping centres and the changes in the way people shop, especially with the growth of internet shopping.

The review includes the sums of £100,000 going to councils to rejuvenate areas, a £1m Future High-Street X-Fund, which will be awarded to the locations that deliver the most creative and effective schemes to revitalising the high streets in a year’s time, and a £500,000 fund for business improvement districts to help town centres access loans for their set-up costs.