Stoke & Staffordshire

Why are Stoke-on-Trent's shops boarded up?

Boarded-up shop
Image caption Three of Stoke's town centres have been named in a survey of the worst high streets

A survey has found half of Stoke-on-Trent's six towns have some of the highest shop vacancy rates in the country. So why are shoppers deserting the high streets of the Potteries?

The names of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent are like a local poetry that trips off the tongues of most Stokies - Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent and Tunstall.

But three of the centres have just been named as having some of the highest shop vacancy rates in England, according to a survey by The Local Data Company.

According to the study, which looked at 3,000 town and shopping centres and retail parks, Burslem, Hanley and Stoke-upon-Trent all have more than 25% vacancies, with Burslem and Hanley topping the list.

'Disappointing'

The news is a particular blow to Stoke-on-Trent's city council, which has invested millions in Hanley to promote it as a traditional "city centre" for Stoke.

Residents questioned whether the strategy of promoting Hanley at the expense of Stoke's other towns had spread resources too thinly.

Simon Kotaloski, a self-employed engineer from Burslem, said: "It's a great little town. But the council has tried pushing everything into Hanley and it hasn't worked.

"People don't want to go to Hanley. They want to go to somewhere more local."

Image copyright Google
Image caption Residents were concerned when the council wanted to move from its civic centre

But is the news as bad as it appears?

Walk down each high street and you will see a discernable "centre", with clusters of elegant Victorian architecture, squares and statues, magistrates' courts and town halls.

But vacancies are a prevailing theme - even in civic buildings.

Fenton Town Hall operated as a magistrates court until it closed in 2012. Now, despite protests, it is up for sale.

Concerns were also expressed at the city council's plan to move from its Victorian civic centre in Stoke-upon-Trent into Hanley.

Many shops are boarded up. Other units have been filled with takeaways and betting shops.

"If you look around you can see there are a number of empty shops," said Sara Williams, the chief executive of the North Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce.

She says the survey is "disappointing".

Image caption Burslem's Victorian Middleport pottery factory has been refurbished

"The thing you have to bear in mind is a lot of our shopping habits have changed so how we used the high street is different too. Some areas are doing better than others," she said.

"It highlights the north-south divide that is obvious in business around the country at the moment."

However, she thinks Stoke has been caught at a bad time. The regeneration going on throughout the city means many of the city's shopping districts are in a state of flux.

"There is a lot of building and development in Hanley at the moment and that's never a good time to start up businesses because they want to see how it's going to settle down," she said.

"Things are changing and in the next six months I would expect to see a lot of improvement.

"We have one of the highest start-up rates in the country in Stoke, so I think there is a growth in interest in people taking on premises."

Matthew Hopkinson, director of The Local Data Company, agrees Stoke could be in a period of transition.

"It was a big industrial area that has lost a lot of its potteries and now needs to readjust to its new environment," he said.

"It also has excellent access to other towns and cities with shiny new shopping centres, which doesn't help."

Access to shops remains a concern - Ms Williams said councils still needed to improve parking in towns and cities.

Image caption Burslem, Hanley and Stoke-upon-Trent have some of the highest vacancy rates in England

The towns with the highest vacancy rates:

Burslem (Stoke-on-Trent) 29.4%

Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent) 27.7%

Hartlepool (North East) 27.3%

West Bromwich (West Midlands) 27.1%

Droylsden (North West) 26.8%

Morecambe (North West) 26.8%

Stoke-upon-Trent (Stoke-on-Trent) 26.6%

Bootle (North West) 26.4%

Walsall (West Midlands) 26.2%

Stockport (North West) 25.9%

Source: The Local Data Company

"What we've got to do is sell what we've got," said Labour councillor Alan Dutton, who represents Burslem Central.

He sees Burslem, with its manufacturing history which has seen huge investment in recent years, as forming a "heritage centre" for Stoke.

"This survey does worry me, obviously," he said. "But these shops will get filled."

The Labour-led council argues the survey is not an "accurate reflection" of business in the town.

Image caption The council says Burslem could become a "heritage centre" for Stoke

Ruth Rosenau, cabinet member for regeneration, said millions of pounds had been channelled into Burslem to bring previously derelict commercial properties back into use, while Hanley had undergone a "massive transformation".

Image caption The six towns of Stoke-on-Trent

•The six towns are Hanley (city centre), Burslem, Fenton, Longton, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Tunstall.

•Each of the six has its own town hall.

•In 1888, the six towns lobbied the government to become recognised as a county of "Staffordshire Potteries" but the bid failed.

•The six towns were united as a county borough on 31 March, 1910.

•In 1924, Stoke-on-Trent was given city status.

•Some people mistakenly believe Stoke-on-Trent has five towns because of the Arnold Bennett novel "Anna of the Five Towns".

But will all of this make a difference to retailers?

They certainly hope so.

Megan Jones, who works in Burslem's Royal Stafford Pottery Shop, said passing trade had fallen in recent years.

However, she said: "There are still local people around this area and it feels as if things are improving. Perhaps we'll see a resurgence in the future."

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