Mackem money and free parking among suggestions to help Sunderland’s ailing city centre

Empty shops on High Street West, Sunderland city centre.'Sunderland second place in the list of town and city centres with empty shops.
Empty shops on High Street West, Sunderland city centre.'Sunderland second place in the list of town and city centres with empty shops.
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SCRAP no-car lanes, introduce free parking and launch the Mackem Pound.

They are just some of the suggestions put forward to provide a much-needed boost to the flagging city centre.

A recent report revealed how one in four shops now stands empty.

Figures released by the Local Data Company (LDC) showed 23.6 per cent of shops in the city centre are vacant, up almost three per cent in six months.

The Echo spoke to business bosses and shopowners to see what changes they think are needed to help kickstartthe area.

Parking is one of the main gripes of business owners.

Amore restaurant owner Kam Chera had a message for Sunderland City Council: “Is it any wonder our city centre is dying?

“How does our city centre expect to flourish when customers and business owners can’t park anywhere without getting a parking ticket within five minutes? Why can’t you put that effort into assisting businesses?

“Sunderland has more traffic wardens than open shops.

“I and many of my customers have fallen foul of the parking wardens. You are driving them away from returning.

“We have a population of 360,000 and boast of being the biggest city between Edinburgh and Leeds. Well, we certainly do not act like one.”

“The parking issue is massive,” said Julie Elstob, owner of Jus’ Deliciou’S cafe.

“I can either start getting the bus and taxis to work, but I have to take stock, or pay massive amounts to park and even then I can’t get to close to the shop to unload. There’s just nothing and no one on our side.

“Even if there was a reduction for the parking, the cheapest I can get is if I pay £55 per month to park, or make twice as many journeys by getting someone to drive me to work then come back to get me. It’s definitely a lose-lose situation.”

Jeweller Harry Collinson said: “A lot of people go into Debenhams and into The Bridges and go back out.

“If parking was free at weekends at certain times, that would really improve the flow.”

Chris Johnson, a Labour candidate for St Michael’s ward on the city council, has another traffic-related idea.

“Scrapping the bus-only lanes would significantly improve the through traffic in the town,” said the 32-year-old. “Simplifying an excessively complex traffic system without compromising pedestrian safety.

“If this is an issue of traffic planning not heeding what the city centre businesses want, then the elected councillors should be intervening.

“We have now got a functioning ring road around much of the city centre, which all but cancels out the need for the overly restrictive one-way system and bus lanes in the areas mentioned.”

Mr Johnson believes that Sunderland trading tokens for independent stores, places to eat and bars would revitalise trade.

Bristol recently revealed plans to introduce its own currency, allowing customers to exchange sterling to pay in Bristol pound notes, online or via their mobile phones.

He said: “If Bristol can have its own currency, then why not Sunderland? As a scheme for the independent retailers, restaurants and bars, it would be a great way of encouraging people to spend more in the city centre.

“It could be a great way for small business owners to get together and offer promotions and discounts as a group.”

Dave Gill, who runs Juniper’s Pantry, said: “I think it’s a fantastic idea. People from Sunderland are really passionate about being from Sunderland.

“This gives us even more of an identity. I think people from Sunderland would really take to that idea. It would be the novelty factor in the beginning, but I think it would have longevity.

“People in Sunderland are scared of change, but the local businesses are scared to give them something different.”

Sunderland City Council declined to comment.

Twitter: @janethejourno