“We said we’d step in and take control in our town centres – that’s exactly what we’re doing and now we want your views.”
That’s the message from Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council after it completed the £13.8million purchase of the Castlegate Shopping Centre and Swallow Hotel.
The move, which was agreed at a Cabinet meeting in March, comes hot on the heels of the Council’s purchase of the Wellington Square shopping centre.
It’s all part of the Council’s pledge to lead a fightback across all six of the Borough’s town centres and help them thrive.
Central to those plans is a commitment to step in and buy key sites and assets in the Borough’s town centres when such opportunities arise.
And having taken advantage of opportunities to own and control key sites in Stockton, the Council is now seeking people’s views on future developments.
Councillor Nigel Cooke, the Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Housing, said: “Everybody knows town centres are struggling and time and again I see and hear local people calling for something to be done to help them.
“The problem we’ve faced in the past is that we’ve had very little influence over key sites and properties in our town centres because, contrary to what a lot of people think, we don’t actually own them.
“We said we’d step in and take control where opportunities arise, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We will do anything we can to support all of our six towns – Billingham, Ingleby Barwick, Norton, Stockton, Thornaby and Yarm – to be successful.
“In Stockton, the triggers to us stepping in have been the opportunities to purchase the Castlegate Centre, Swallow Hotel and Wellington Square and being shortlisted to bid for money from the Government’s £1billion Future High Streets Fund.
“Taking ownership of these key town centre sites has put the power to lead change firmly in our hands. But what we really need now is people’s views, because there are all kinds of exciting possibilities and we want to know what people think.
“People’s responses will shape our final bid to the Future High Streets Fund early next year. The Fund is there to transform town centres through investment in things like housing, workplaces, infrastructure and culture and that’s exactly what we’re looking to do.”
What happens next?
The Council has been exploring a number of options, ranging from the refurbishment and repurposing of the Castlegate Shopping Centre through to the demolition of both Castlegate and the Swallow Hotel.
The demolition option would shrink the amount of retail space in the town, addressing the current oversupply and reducing the number of empty shops.
The transition would be managed very carefully, with the town’s retail offer focussed on Wellington Square as well as in and around other parts of the High Street.
This would complement the successful markets and growing number of independent shops in places like Silver Street.
It would also open up the Castlegate and Swallow site for redevelopment as a prime site connecting the town centre with the water front.
But before developing these options any further, the Council is pausing to seek people’s views.
“What we’re doing today is starting a conversation,” said Councillor Cooke. “It’s an open conversation, with nothing ruled in, and nothing ruled out. We want to know what our residents want and expect of a modern town centre.
“This first conversation is about Stockton but we’ll be getting out and having similar conversations with people about each and every one of our six towns before the end of the year.
“But one thing we have to be very clear about is that town centres can’t just be about shops any more. Lots of big name brands are leaving and they’re not coming back. That’s because more people are shopping online and out of town now.
“Just look at Teesside Park. It’s chock full of the big chains and it’s very popular with shoppers. The challenge facing our town centres isn’t to compete with that, it’s to complement that and offer something different.
“Our town centres certainly can’t sustain as much retail space as they once did. They have to change. In Stockton, the acquisitions we’ve made have given us a once in a generation opportunity to lead that kind of change.”
What kind of opportunity?
“The Castlegate and Swallow site is absolutely huge – about three times the size of Trafalgar Square,” said Councillor Cooke. “Stockton has been accused of turning its back on the river over the years but many modern towns and cities make the most of their water front setting.
“You could have a riverside park and promenade on there and build on what we’ve been doing with the High Street by placing even more emphasis on events and festivals. Things that bring communities together.
“You could have housing on there – creating new neighbourhoods at the heart of the town. That would have the effect of shrinking town centre retail space and growing town centre living space.
“You could even have high quality office space on there with a focus on jobs, business support and economic growth. Or a mix of all of these things – they’re all in line with the kind of developments the Future High Streets Fund has been set up to support.
“Looking at the broader town centre, things like cinemas, bars, restaurants and of course, great events, come into thinking too, as there’s also a huge shift towards having leisure and attractions in town centres now as they rebalance in the wake of retail shifting online and out town.
“These are the ideas that are emerging, and we want to know what people think of them because ultimately, we want to deliver what people want to see.
"Of course, this would bring the possibility of having to close Riverside Road, so that’s something we’ll be asking people about as well. And it might be that people would simply we rather got rid of the Swallow, but refurbish Castlegate and repurpose part or all of it for other uses. That’s another thing we’ll be asking.
“Our overall motivation here is to deliver our bigger plan to step in and take control in our town centres and get on with changing them for the better, in consultation with local people.”
What do experts think?
Bill Grimsey, the straight-talking nationally-renowned retail expert and author of The Grimsey Review, said: “High streets and town centres have irrevocably changed and there’s no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.
“I visit a lot of councils and as far as I’m concerned Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council is one of the best in the country at understanding you have to reinvent your towns as places for people to come for reasons other than shops.
“The fact is, shopping is totally different in the 21st century and it doesn’t require the traditional high streets of the past. What we do require are town centres with things like parks and great entertainment, great attractions, health, and housing.
“It’s very important that councils take the initiative and I applaud the Council for doing that and looking at its towns and planning for a future with fewer shops and in which town centres will need to attract people for reasons other than shopping.
“That may require them buying properties up, or even taking properties down, but the Council understands that acquiring properties is part of their remit and part of their broader plans to bring about change.”
How can I give my views on the town’s future?
There are a lots of ways to get in touch. All views must be received by Monday, October 21 so they feed into the Council’s final bid to the Future High Streets Fund.
You can fill in an online questionnaire by visiting www.stockton.gov.uk/towncentres
Or you can attend one of the following drop-in sessions and fill in a paper copy:
- Wednesday, September 25, 11am to 3pm, Rediscover Shop – Stockton town centre
- Thursday, September 26, 11am to 3pm, Thornaby Central Library
- Saturday, September 28, 11am to 3pm, Rediscover Shop – Stockton town centre
- Monday, September 30, 11am to 3pm, Billingham Library
- Tuesday, October 1, 11am to 3pm, Norton Library
- Wednesday, October 2, 11am to 3pm, Rediscover Shop – Stockton town centre
- Thursday, October 3, 4pm to 8pm, Stockton Central Library
- Monday, October 7, 11am to 3pm, Yarm Library
- Thursday, October 10, 4pm to 8pm, Stockton Central Library
There’ll be drop-in sessions at Ingleby Barwick Tesco and Teesside Park too – look out for details.