Linda Colling: Save us, Mary!

Mary Portas, Queen of Shops

Mary Portas, Queen of Shops

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SADLY Sunderland isn’t on her hit list – yet. Nevermind the Olympic torch, we need a campaign for Mary Queen of Shops to come here to sort out our beleagured city centre.

With one in five shops now standing empty, the decline of our once fair city means Sunderland is ranked 18 in the empty shops league of towns and cities.

Straight-talking TV personality Mary Portas has been appointed by the Government to come up with a rescue plan for the country’s embattled high streets.

Here’s a woman on a mission. She has turned around some of Britain’s near-bankrupt small shops into swish money-making businesses, but the burning question is can she reverse what is possibly the terminal decline of our High Streets?

In typical no-nonsense style, Mary has confessed: “I don’t know the answer yet, but I hope I will in the next six months. It has to start with the government and the councils.

“If they continue not to act, soon we will have tumbleweed rolling down our high streets.” As high streets have declined, out-of-town shopping has increased by 36 per cent in a decade.

What makes a perfect High Street and what draws people there is for them to have a distinct identity. The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker have all gone, and so now we have “clone towns”, one high street looking very much like another, with Greggs, New Look, Dorothy Perkins and none of the independent shops we didn’t love enough to keep them in business.

Remember Strothers hardware, Simpson’s the bakers, Maxwells, Josephs, Lermans, Maynards sweet shop? All gone.

Yet, in Barnard Castle where I love shopping, a small market town, not a city like Sunderland, local independent shops are thriving. And that’s in spite of having a Morrisons. Here the independent retailers – some generations old – are offering something unique to supermarket fare.

There’s bakers selling distinctive breads, pastries and cakes, butchers, greengrocers, a chocolatier, old-fashioned sweet shop, toy emporium, antique and gift shops, bric-a-brac, and its got a Maxwells.

And charity shops. But here they don’t dominate. What our town needs is a breath of life in the kind of shops that were an experience, like Defty’s, Jane Jones, Reids the jewellers, all the ones that made Holmeside a delight and drew the shoppers in.

Everything is now concetrated in The Bridges, but those of us who can remember Sunderland as a classy shopping area, mourn all that has gone. The city centre’s “vacancy rate” rose to 21.5 per cent last year – a hike of four per cent from 2009.

Lower rates and rents could kick-start a regeneration – one that we long to see of more inspirational retailers who have been given a financial incentive by the council.

It’s like a ghost town outside of The Bridges with Fawcett Street, Holmeside and Waterloo Place. And just wait until Primark moves to The Bridges.

Sunderland Council has been ploughing millions of pounds into events and improvements in the city centre in recent years, and a further £1million for work in the key shopping area is included in this year’s budget.

It’s not fancy paving or concrete seats to sit on that will bring people in to our town. It’s shops with a difference that will make the difference.

High Streets are indeed the heart of a community. It’s heartbreaking what’s happened to ours. Come here soon Mary.