THE future of Sunderland city centre was in the spotlight as hundreds descended on the Stadium of Light to quiz civic leaders.
Nearly 300 people attended the annual State of the City debate which allowed them to quiz a panel of five movers and shakers, which included Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson, chief executive Dr Dave Smith, City Hospital chief executive Ken Bremner, Sunderland College principal Anne Isherwood, and Paul Woolston, the chair of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership.
Questions were submitted in advance, with the top three chosen for discussion by the panel - and all concerned the city centre.
The most popular question was about the appearance of the city centre, including the state of buildings and closure of shops, as well as the lack of upmarket retailers against an abundance of betting and pound shops.
Dr Smith said more money had to be spent in the city centre to create demand for ‘more decent shops’ and insisted it is one of the key priorities of the Business Improvement District (BID), which launched in April and will bring £3.4million of private investment into the city centre over the next five years.
The next area of interest was city centre accessibility, including the impression people get when they arrive, as well as car parking and the railway station.
Coun Watson said he fully understood that first impressions count and that people want to come and go from the city in a pleasant, modern railway station.
He added that funding is in place and that the council is working with Network Rail and Nexus to bring forward plans for a new railway station, with a final design expected early next year.
Concerns about the expense of parking and lack of incentives when driving to the city were also highlighted, with Coun Watson saying the ‘free after three’ scheme will be back on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays over the Christmas period, and then it will continue on Thursdays after the festive season.
The third question debated centred on the St Mary’s roadworks, with queries about the timescales and budgets for the works in the vicinity of St Mary’s Way and Keel Square.
Dr Smith said the main highway works will be mostly complete by November 12, ahead of late night shopping which starts the following day, the evening of the Christmas lights switch on. After that there will be some off peak lane closures for short periods to complete the new road
Work to create the new Keel Square is planned to continue into early January, Dr Smith said, but added that there have been unknown and unforeseen factors relating to utilities that have delayed progress and increased costs.
“As I’ve said on many occasions in the past, State of the City is one of the highlights of the council calendar for me because above all else, it is my responsibility – and that of all my fellow councillors – to listen to what you have to say, and feed that into council and city decision making processes,” Coun Watson said as he opened the event.
“Our role, as elected representatives of local people, is to work hard to understand your needs and concerns, your aspirations and priorities, and then to ensure the council and other organisations serving the city and its people, respond accordingly.”
The debate, held on Tuesday night, was hosted by BBC’s political editor Richard Moss.