Call to action: ‘save Weston’s shops’

Empty shop premises in High Street.

Empty shop premises in High Street. - Credit: Archant

A CALL to action has been issued to key business figures in Weston to set up a ‘10-year plan’ to save town centre trade.

Empty shop premises in High Street.

Empty shop premises in High Street. - Credit: Archant

High business rates and a perceived focus on out-of-town development by North Somerset Council, as well as the rise of supermarket power and online trading, are squeezing the High Street, according to Sovereign Shopping Centre manager Nick Cooke.

Empty shop premises in Waterloo Street.

Empty shop premises in Waterloo Street. - Credit: Archant

The pictures on today’s front page reveal the extent of the problem, with scores of shops and other units currently ‘to let’ or lying empty – it is estimated there are 65 empty ground-floor premises across the town centre.

Empty shop premises in Waterloo Street.

Empty shop premises in Waterloo Street. - Credit: Archant

Mr Cooke called on the Business Improvement District (BID) team to ‘up its game’ and said the council must also do more to improve the town centre.

He said: “BID needs to up its game and look beyond the janitorial role it’s performing at the moment and look at the long-term picture.

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“What’s the local plan for the town centre for the next five to 10 years? I suspect there isn’t one.

“More needs to be done by the local authority. There needs to be an acknowledgement by North Somerset Council that major development is needed in the town centre.

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“It has to create the space that modern retailers want if it wants them to come to Weston.”

He said the council’s focus on out-of-town retail has taken its toll on the town centre and said many of the units are Victorian buildings, ill-suited to modern businesses.

Mr Cooke added: “If you are the manager of Next, are you going to go into the town centre?

“You want a big box out-of-town, with cheap rates and easy parking.”

He stressed that it is not a problem particular to Weston, but a national trend, adding: “There isn’t a magic wand. But what it needs is for key people to come together to map out the future.

“We are just sitting on our own hoping the problem is going to go away.”

Business rates are also too high and need to be revalued, he said, adding: “Business rates have been a cash cow for successive Governments for 20 years.

“In the Sovereign Shopping Centre, the old Gilesports unit is £50,000. And that’s before rent, electricity or any other overheads. Who is paying that when it’s empty? The landlord.

“The local authority has the power to waive the rates but it needs the money too.”

Town centre trader Sarah Schranz - a former Dolphin Square trader - agreed that high rates, coupled with ‘astronomical’ rents, are pushing businesses to the limit

She said: “If you want to be anywhere there is footfall, eg High Street, you have to pay astronomical corporate rents.

“Landlords are not prepared to negotiate rent and there are astronomical business rates on the High Street, too.

“It’s a real struggle at this time of year. In the summer we can all pay the rates, in winter we can’t.

“Properties need to be revalued, not using valuations from 2008.

“There is a need to reduce overheads and develop footfall.

“I do think there are traders around that would take the empty spaces on if they could see the areas being regenerated.”

According to an advert for the lease of TJ Hughes in the High Street by GCW, the unit would command business rates of £88,548 per year, on top of a rent of £175,000.

Town centre manager Steve Townsend said he estimated the vacancy rates in the town centre are ‘about 10-11 per cent’ for ground floor units, with 65 currently empty, according to his last count.

But he said the number was below the national average and would compare favourably with other seaside towns such as Weymouth, Great Yarmouth and Scarborough.

He added: “We have just come out of a recession, Christmas and VAT bills. We are a seaside town and some of them are going to be seasonal.

“I’m not being dismissive, I don’t have a magic box with the answer.

“TJ Hughes [being filled] would be a good catalyst, and Dolphin Square is the big one. I think that would be a bit of a kick-start.”

BID chairman Paul Batts said the team is already working on a five-year plan but that the issue with a decade-long plan is that councils and Governments change within that time.

But Mr Batts said BID is open ‘in principle’ to having discussions with other groups, something which has already happened in relation to tourism with Love Weston.

He said: “We would always welcome discussions to improve the trading environment in the town.”

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