ONE in five shops now stands empty in Sunderland city centre, according to a new report.
Concerns over the decline of the city centre have been rife for years and how best to improve the area is one of the hottest topics of discussion.
Now new figures from the Local Data Company (LDC) show the city centre’s “vacancy rate” rose to 21.5 per cent last year – a hike of four per cent from 2009.
Sunderland City 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.
But Conservative regeneration spokesman Alan Wright said the cash would only help if it was targeted properly – and claimed the council must do more to attract shoppers and traders to Sunderland.
He said: “We won’t stop shops from closing down and we won’t encourage traders to open up unless we can get more people to come into the city centre.”
Coun Wright, who represents St Chad’s, said residents regularly complained to him about a lack of public toilets and poor signage in the city centre.
He is particularly fearful of shops in Fawcett Street and said the size, frequency and noise of buses running along the street put shoppers off visiting it. He wants the council and bus companies to explore changing bus routes.
Coun Write did, however, say there had been some successes in the city centre – including the £15million expansion of The Bridges to include a three-storey Primark store and it was important to recognise and celebrate such developments.
Sunderland is ranked 18 in the empty shops league of towns and cities with large shopping areas – those with more than 400 units in their core retail districts.
The LDC said the growth in empty shops threatened the future of the high street, particularly in the north of England, amid warnings some shopping precincts will never return to their pre-recession days.
The report says: “Whichever way you look at it, fundamental structural changes are taking place in UK retail at the retailer and consumer levels. The very fact that 10 years ago the majority of a multiple retailer’s stores were on a high street but now are migrating from the high street into shopping centres and out-of-town shopping parks begs the question of what will fill the high street of 2020 and beyond?”
Newcastle’s vacancy rate dropped by 0.9 per cent to 17 per cent, while neighbouring South Shields’ went up by 6.1 per cent to 21.9 per cent.
Keith Lowes, Head of Planning and Environment, Sunderland City Council, said: “The national economic picture clearly has an impact on people’s propensity to spend and as this reduces there is a corresponding increase in the number of vacant shops. Technological factors such as the growth in internet on-line shopping also have a part to play.
“The latest figures show an increase in the proportion of empty shops across the country in not only large centres like Sunderland but also medium and small centres. Examples of centres where the proportion of vacancies has decreased are few and far between.
“In Sunderland there have been some long-standing empty properties in certain parts of the city centre, for instance in the less favourable locations in terms of pedestrian footfall and the closure of a single shop like Joplings results in a long length of vacant frontage, which does not create a good impression.
“On the plus side Land Securities plans for the expansion of the Bridges together with the new operators who have moved into the mall over the past year confirm the popularity of this part of the city centre’s primary retail core.
“In addition the council continues to invest in the city centre public realm following on from the work that has been undertaken in St Thomas Street, High Street West, Union Street and Athenaeum Street and to be recommenced in Market Square in April.
“Work is also ongoing to “dress” empty shop frontages on properties held for redevelopment in Holmeside South and the former Pilgrim Pub House in Fawcett Street which is in council ownership but is on the market.
“The occupation of retail premises in the city centre tends to be dynamic with ebbs and flows in some areas but the situation can be expected to improve subject to the overall economy improving.”