The Castlegate Shopping Centre and Swallow Hotel are set to be demolished as part of bold plans to tackle Stockton’s empty shops and open up the town to the river.
Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council bought the buildings in September before seeking public views on a “once in a generation” opportunity to change the town.
Plans are now being drawn-up after the consultation, which attracted around 1,000 responses, revealed strong public support for putting the site to a different use.
“We had a massive response to our consultation on the next steps for Stockton town centre and I’d like to thank everybody who shared their views,” said Councillor Nigel Cooke, the Council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Housing.
“It’s obvious people care very deeply about the town.”
What is being proposed?
Under the plans, Castlegate and the Swallow Hotel – which occupy a site around three times the size of Trafalgar Square – will make way for a riverside park and offices.
The riverside park will feature public artwork and pleasant green spaces for families to enjoy.
A “land bridge” structure will enable the park to span a section of Riverside Road, providing uninterrupted access to the waterfront.
The Council is also proposing to build a new central library, customer service centre and council office on the site, kick-starting its regeneration and saving money as part of plans to consolidate its 10 existing council offices into two.
The town’s main retail offer will be focussed on Wellington Square, the 700-year-old market, and other parts of the High Street and town centre, such as Silver Street.
The feasibility of covering Wellington Square – which the Council bought in May last year – to protect shoppers from the elements will also be progressed.
What’s the thinking behind this?
“What the consultation has shown is strong public support for demolishing Castlegate and the Swallow Hotel, concentrating shops at Wellington Square and making the most of the town’s riverside setting,” said Councillor Cooke.
“I think people are starting to realise that high streets have changed forever and the days of them being lined with big name shops are over. We’ve seen it in Stockton with the likes of M&S, Debenhams and H&M all going.
“But it’s all about how we respond.
“We all enjoy reminiscing about the golden era when every town had a big department store but we can’t turn back the clock. We need to take the bull by the horns and get on with reshaping Stockton for the modern age.
“If we do nothing we’ll just see a growing number of empty shops.
“This plan will shrink the town’s oversupply of retail space, bringing it more into line with demand, which will actually boost the prospects of larger units like the former M&S, New Look and Debenhams being reoccupied.
“It will also open up the town to face the river as you see in modern towns and cities across Europe. Stockton has been accused of turning its back on the river over the years.
“It’s the logical thing to do.”
What will happen to the shops that are currently in Castlegate?
All of Castlegate’s tenants will be supported to relocate if they want to, with most indicating that they want to retain a presence in the town centre.
There is enough space in Wellington Square and other vacant units in the town centre to accommodate them all.
Where’s the money coming from?
The Council is proposing to use £20million of Tees Valley Combined Authority funding to decant Castlegate tenants, demolish Castlegate and the Swallow Hotel, and clear the site for redevelopment.
It is also preparing to submit a bid for £21million from the Government’s £1billion Future High Streets Fund to develop the riverside park and land bridge, with the outcome expected later this year.
Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, is backing the bid with a letter of support to the Government.
Mayor Houchen said: “Regenerating our town centres so they are the vibrant places we all want to visit is hugely important and it is projects like this that will reinvigorate our town centres – making them fit for the 21st century.”
The proposals for the new Council offices will be cheaper and greener than the Council continuing to operate its 10 existing buildings and the cost could be met through the Council borrowing the money itself. An alternative would see a private developer fund and build it and the Council then take a long-term lease on the building.
But what about the changes that have already been made in the town centre?
“This is a continuation of the changes we’ve been making in recent years to make the town centre a place that people might choose to visit for reasons other than just shopping,” said Councillor Cooke.
“That’s precisely why we’ve invested in holding big events on the High Street, creating fun features like the fountains, and in building the thriving Hampton by Hilton hotel, as well as places to live such as the new housing going up on the former Victoria Estate.
“It’s also why we’re leading the restoration of the Globe, which is due to open later this year and pull in up to 200,000 visitors a year. A riverside park with its own attractions and events will complement all of this.
“We’ve shown great foresight to take Stockton in this new direction because shop numbers are falling it is these kinds of leisure experiences and attractions that will draw current and future generations into the town centre.
“Lots of towns haven’t even started this journey but we’re well on with it. It’s full steam ahead.”
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.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to get rid of excess retail space and whether we like it or not, in most places it is councils that are best placed to step in and do that. If they don’t you’ll just see those places get left behind and change will never happen.
“For these proposals in Stockton there are so many wins – you wipe out excess retail space, you open the town to the river, you get a riverside park and offices, and the shopping centre you’re left with becomes much more viable.
“Because you’ve stripped out oversupply of retail space you’re actually left with a shopping centre that can generate a healthy income and it may even be that you can sell it back to the private sector as it’s become a much more attractive proposition.”
What happens next?
The plans will be considered at meeting of the Council’s Cabinet on Thursday, February 20. If agreed, the decant of tenants from Castlegate would get under way with a view to starting the demolition of Castlegate and the Swallow Hotel in 2022.
The construction of the riverside park and office buildings would follow with a target completion date of 2025.