Commercial property and business agent Parker Barras has praised Middlesbrough and Stockton councils for reimagining their high streets to create what will become “go-to” destinations for leisure and specialist shopping.
John Taylor, director of the Middlehaven-based firm, praised the “radical rethink” of Middlesbrough and Stockton’s town centres, which he believes have gone some way to addressing the slow-burning decline of our high streets that Covid accelerated.
In Middlesbrough, where modern offices in Centre Square recently opened, plans are afoot to transform Captain Cook Square’s former TJ Hughes store into a bowling alley.
And in Stockton, Castlegate Shopping Centre is to be demolished to make way for a new riverside waterfront – something that follows the recent redevelopment and reopening of Stockton Globe, is attracting more culture – and crucially people with money to spend.
John explains the pandemic created a “real urgency” to focus on town centres and high streets, which were already struggling with shop closures pre-pandemic.
He said: “It was in councils’ interests to do something with their town centres – and both Middlesbrough and Stockton councils have had a radical rethink in terms of how to attract people back into town.
“We’ve made one or two acquisitions on behalf of landlords and over the next year there will be lots of opportunities for the bold and the brave who step forward and come up with innovative ideas.”
With drastically falling commercial property prices and rents attracting smaller, independent retailers to the high street, as well as the potential to create leisure parks and turn some stock into quality housing, John believes the future of town centres is bright.
He predicts each town centre will develop its own unique offering rather than tourists facing “cloned” high streets when travelling from one town to the next.
“All town centres were hit by Debenhams closing during the pandemic,” he says. “In Sheffield, they’ve turned theirs into a hospital and in London, a Debenhams store has now become a go-karting track.
“Rather than just having the same big stores for shopping, which isn’t what’s required in the modern age, councils need to think differently – and both Middlesbrough and Stockton councils have stepped up.”
John says without such radical changes, our town centres would become even more unused or unloved, but the fact that councils are taking action now should mean the high street is much improved over the next decade.
He says: “Stockton Council started before Covid, having new lighting installed and carrying out some landscaping, as well as redeveloping the Globe and purchasing a shopping centre to knock down and open up the waterfront.
“In Stockton, the riverside is an asset of the town that had just been lost by shopping malls built in the 1970s.”
“The fact that Stockton Council is trying to integrate the river into what they are doing with the town centre is fantastic and it will be a destination that will attract tourists because it will be nice to visit.”
John also believes the future will see more people living in quality accommodation in our town centres.
He said: “The relaxation of planning laws so that commercial premises can be converted into housing will also see a lot more people starting to live in the town centre, as well as smaller, specialist shopping venues moving in.
“I do think we will see the town centre thriving again and if people start living and working in the town centre, we will see a massive upturn in visitor numbers.”
Despite his optimism, John is also realistic and believes that positive change is “not going to happen overnight”.
But given that Parker Barras is seeing increasing demand to rent and to buy commercial property, he is adamant the long-term future is a bright one – at least for Middlesbrough and Stockton.
He said: “I still think there’s quite a bit more pain to come at the moment – there are still restrictions on collecting rent arrears, which don’t get lifted until next year. But with the plans the local councils have in place, the future of the high street on Teesside is bright.
“Newport Road has a new art college and there is a focus on bringing more people to the town centre and that will be a continuing trend.
“One of the issues we’ve got at the moment is we haven’t got enough stock – people are wanting to rent and to buy and there are not enough properties on the market to fill demand, so there’s still a real appetite to occupy space.”
Speaking of the affordability of rents – and even the prospect of smaller businesses buying up properties in the town centre – John explains that his company recently oversaw the sale of one commercial property for a snip at£88,000. In 2004, that same building sold for £615,000.
“For a town centre property, this is extremely good value for money and you can get a really good return on your investment,” said John. “We also secured a tenant for the property, so the landlord is happy.
“The market is becoming extremely attractive when buying properties – there are currently millions of pounds being knocked off the prices of commercial properties across the UK.”
At the same time, John believes the customer will be king of the new look high street.
“Retailers who remain on the high street will start upping their game in terms of their customer service,” said John.
“Despite advancements in technology and internet shopping, some people still like the interaction of being able to go into a shop and get expert advice.
“I definitely think we can look forward to a bright future for our town centres on Teesside.”