For a relatively small city centre, Newcastle has a lot going on. Walk just over 1,000 metres from the Grade 1 listed railway station through its towering Victorian & Georgian architecture and you will have walked the length of the city’s main shopping district.
Along the way a visitor could pass several theatres, an imposing war memorial, a football stadium and a rich and growing mix of retailers.
From the independent eateries of Grainger Market, to the mass market appeal and pulsing crowds of Northumberland Street, to the newly opened extension to centrally located shopping centre Eldon Square, Newcastle has much to be pleased about.
“When we are feeling cocky we like to say the city is like London’s West End,” says Sean Bullick, CEO of NE1, an independent city management group which works to make Newcastle more attractive to businesses.
NE1 has been busy working with the city council to improve cleanliness and signage around the centre and bring in exciting new retailers, but perhaps the biggest initiative of the last year or so has been the Alive after Five scheme.
Launched in October 2010 the project has seen all of the retailers at Eldon Square and a large number of traders on the city’s main retail thoroughfare Northumberland Street extend their opening hours to 8pm on weekdays.
This addition to trading times has been accompanied by the council making city centre parking free between 5pm and 8pm, with NE1 swallowing half the associated costs, and as a result trading has soared.
NE1 claims that Alive after Five has generated an extra £53.1 million in revenues in its first six months and has led to an additional 747,627 extra shoppers at Eldon Square.
“I think the package we have put together for Alive after Five is unique and there is not an equivalent like it in the rest of the world, as far as I am aware,” Bullick added.
He says that it was not easy at first to convince participating retailers to take the risk of opening for longer, or the council to limit revenues at a time when its is being asked to cut nearly £50 million from its budget by central government, but the ability to try new things seems to come naturally to this friendly and dynamic city.
Local retail consultant and researcher Graham Soult told Retail Gazette: “It is a pretty exciting time for Newcastle.
“There were some worries when Eldon Square was extended that retailers would migrate inside and leave voids behind but that hasn’t happened. Instead new retailers have taken the spaces.”
Amid national fears for the UK’s regional high streets, Newcastle proves the argument that desirable prime centres can insulate themselves somewhat from the harshness of the current retail winter.
David Slater, Executive Director of Environment & Regeneration at Newcastle City Council, commented : “The Newcastle high street does not need saving.
“The golden rule at the moment is that primary retail centres are consolidating, in other words retail is consolidating into areas of highest demand. As far as the north-east is concerned, Newcastle city centre and Gateshead Metrocentre provide the biggest and the best offer around.”
With Metrocentre, the largest entirely indoor shopping centre in Europe, less than a ten-mile drive from the centre of town, the strength of Newcastle trading is testament to the hard work done by city officials.
Real estate firm Capital Shopping Centres (CSC) owns both Eldon Square and the out-of-town retail destination in Gateshead, and at the close of its first-half trading period on June 30th 2011 it reported respective occupancy levels of 96.1 per cent and 98.5 per cent for the centres.
Celebrating 25 years since its opening, Metrocentre has announced several store refits and new lettings over the last year, and Martin Breeden, who is CSC’s Asset Management Director for both sites, argues that rather than rivalling each other the two malls work well in combination.
“I sometimes wonder what the city centre would be like if Metrocentre did not exist,” Breeden mused.
“With the demand for shopping there is, you simply would not be able to get the volume of shoppers in the city.”
Even the launch of Alive after Five has not dented Metrocentre’s evening trade, and Breeden suggests that each site has its unique features and loyal customers, with the famous Fenwick and John Lewis in the city and cinema and arcades at the Gateshead site.
Developments currently underway or in the planning stages in the city include a revamp of Monument Mall by new owners Hammerson, an expansion to over 10,000 sq ft for the Primark store on Northumberland Street, and the regeneration of Newgate Centre which Slater admits currently “feels run down”.
Newcastle City Council is also planning a major renovation of the East Pilgrim Street area, at the bottom of Northumberland Street, which Slater hopes will become a much sought after location for high grade retailers for years to come.
“Over the next five to ten years we want to bring lots of new retailers, particularly high end ones, into Newcastle for the first time,” he added.
It has already achieved this with Hollister, Apple and All Saints opening eye catching stores in the St Andrew’s Way extension to Eldon Square unveiled 18 months ago, but independent retailers are not ignored in this city either.
As a region of the UK, only Wales has a smaller percentage of independent stores than the north-east but Newcastle seems to be bucking this trend with some healthy areas of indies.
Grainger Market is situated in a listed building and is the longest running indoor market in the UK and there are other pockets of independents scattered around the city, but most would agree that managing the retail mix is an issue of critical mass.
Bullick added: “If you walk down Upper Street in Islington there are hundreds of independent or largely independent stores, but because of levels of population and income in Newcastle a street may only have five but still be fairly accurately heralded as the ‘independent quarter’.”
Some symptoms of the wider retail malaise in the UK are still apparent around the city however and the recent run of high profile insolvencies has left its mark.
If the TJ Hughes store on Grainger Street fails to find a buyer, following the retailer’s administration, it will leave a large hole which could be hard to fill; much like the Woolworths outlet on Clayton Street which is still void three years after that trader fell.
Soult added: “Clayton Street and heading towards the station has always been a secondary or even tertiary area in terms of its offer.”
He calls the nearby Newgate shopping centre “grotty” and hopes that the scheduled redevelopment of this site, with hotels replacing the existing building, will address some of its problems.
Both Bullick and Slater agree that although significant progress has been made in recent times, keeping the retail offer in Newcastle fresh is an ongoing challenge.
Slater welcomes the central government’s review on high street trading but cautions that councils should retain some control over decisions and that regional differences should always be remembered.
With the enhancements seen in Newcastle’s retail over recent years, perhaps Mary Portas could find inspiration from more than a couple of its schemes.