July 8, 2019 @ 10:55 by Richard Dawson
Five North East towns have made it through to the next phase of the multi-million-pound Future High Streets Fund.
The fund aims to transform high streets and make them fit for the 21st century, with improving infrastructure, converting retail units, and housing all high on the agenda.
Darlington, Stockton, South Shields, Bishop Auckland, and Sunderland are among just 50 towns across the country that have been selected to go forward to the next phase of assessment.
Each area will receive up to £150,000 of funding to create detailed project plans based on the proposals they submitted to government at the beginning of the year.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has said it will work closely with local authorities, with a particular focus on accelerating projects that are ‘shovel ready’.
Prime Minister Theresa May said: “Our high streets lie at the heart of local communities – creating jobs, boosting the economy and helping small businesses thrive.
“But new technology and changes in the way we shop means they also face growing challenges, so I’m delighted over 50 towns will initially benefit from this scheme.
“The funding will breathe new life into town centres and – together with measures such as small business rate cuts and opening up empty shops – will transform our high streets for the future.”
The fund was launched in December 2018 in response to the high street crisis, with lower town centre footfall, rising business costs, and a shift to online shopping all negatively impacting the way high streets across the country operate.
In Teesside, Darlington plans to improve central infrastructure as well as construct an enclosed glazed winter garden at the central market with new food and drink units.
Meanwhile, Stockton has plans to improve connectivity with increased parking, buy key sites to redevelop, and invest in new attractions to bring people to the town centre.
Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen said: “I’ve been championing these bids from Darlington and Stockton and I’m delighted that the government has chosen to award this funding, from what was a very competitive and oversubscribed process.
“This great news, announced by Local Growth Minister Jake Berry MP, shows a real commitment to our centres at a time when they need it most.”
Elsewhere in the North East, South Tyneside’s proposal focused on town centre infrastructure with the aim of enhancing connectivity, revitalising vacant buildings, improving leisure facilities, and investing in digital infrastructure.
Cllr Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council, added: “High streets up and down the country are in crisis, with more than 22,000 shops lost over the last nine years. South Tyneside is no exception.
“We recognised some time ago that for our town centres to survive, and indeed thrive, they need to evolve.
“The fact that we have been selected to go through to the next phase is recognition from government and an endorsement of our plans as credible and deliverable. We look forward to working together to drive forward our plans for a vibrant town centre.”