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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Why must vacant shop units be so ugly?

Eric Musgrave
05 May 2022

The high street of Berwick-upon-Tweed was lined with a couple of thousand people on Saturday 30 April.

In bright sunshine they watched dozens of well-turned-out riders and horses parade at the start of the historic Riding of the Bounds, an annual symbolic ceremony in which the limits of the town are checked on behalf of the mayor.

Standing on the kerb I wondered, not for the first time, why the look of this compact high street did not reflect the pride that Berwickers obviously have in their fascinating burgh, the most northly town in England. The Scottish border is just two miles away.

For almost four years I have lived 12 miles inland from the town and I really like this often-overlooked place.

This unit on the south side of Marygate, Berwick-upon-Tweed  has been in this state for at least four years

My biggest bugbear about it – and I am sure this is reflected in many other small towns around the UK – is the depressing state of the vacant units that blight Marygate, Berwick’s main shopping street.

A couple of blocks on the south side are worst affected. My problem is not that there are vacant units but that they are so poorly maintained. There are a handful of prominent buildings whose ground-floor retail units have been empty all the time I have lived nearby.

I do not know how many property owners are involved in this scandal.

Cheap-looking temporary nameboards are bad enough, but in one ugly instance the old name board is damaged and partially missing. It is a disgraceful sight.

Also on Marygate’s south side, a Victorian façade reminds of more prosperous times for Berwick. It has been empty for at least four years.

In most cases the windows are left uncovered so the dirty and untidy interiors are on show.

As Berwick is on the coast, it has a healthy population of seagulls and their droppings bespoil the windows of the empty units (and, I am sorry to say, the windows of many occupied shops).

During lockdown a public-spirited window cleaner took the initiative to make the plate glass look presentable but regular cleaning is essential.

Filthy windows on both stories in a unit that was vacated only last year

The upper stories are often just as neglected. The damp sea air stains the facades and too many buildings in Berwick (empty and occupied) look grubby and neglected.

I read recently Sajid Javid, minister for levelling up, wants to force landlords to let vacant units to help reduce the blight on our high streets. I am not sure that is feasible but I cannot help thinking a local council should surely be able to force landlords to make and keep a vacant shopfronts neat, clean and tidy.

Perhaps readers in the property world will tell me why this is not possible.

I am always impressed that in better shopping centres vacant units are quickly “disguised” with use of attractive and informative vinyls on the windows to maintain a level of consistency in the centre.

Could not something similar be enforced in our main shopping thoroughfares?

Keeping shop fronts clean and presentable is as important as having the streets swept and the rubbish bins emptied. It is a politeness that once was taken as a sign of a civil society.

Maybe we are not polite or civil anymore.

Tatty tiles at the entrance and windows streaked with the droppings of seagulls: one aspect of Berwick’s main shopping street

I wonder why half a dozen or so prominent units on Marygate have stood idle for so long. There have been plenty of retail closures and new arrivals in the four years I have been observing Berwick’s retail offer. The units once occupied by Bonmarché and Dorothy Perkins / Burton have been taken by other business, although the larger ones once used by O2 and Ponden Home remain empty.

Can property experts explain if there is any benefit for a landlord to leave a building empty for years? Or are there particular problems with these Berwick buildings?

An acquaintance whose family has run a coffee bar in the town for more than 100 years suggested to me Marygate’s problem units are too big for many independent businesses but much too small for modern large retailers.

Poor or non-existent rear access for deliveries is also an issue on what is a narrow high street but Sports Direct, M&Co, New Look, Boots, The Works, WH Smith, Clarks, Shoezone and Vodafone all manage to trade on the 250-yard stretch of Marygate.

Last year there was much excitement in the local media about the expansion of an edge-of-town retail park called Loaning Meadows, which is next to an existing Morrisons superstore. Despite having a population of only 12,000 – plus a few thousand more from the surrounding rural areas – Berwick merits three such retail parks, which are home, variously, to a Tesco Extra, a small Asda, a small M&S Foodhall, Next, Currys, Argos, Homebase and Poundland.

At the eastern end of Marygate is this building, which housed a Subway sandwich shop before the pandemic. A start was made to refurbish the site but I have seen no builders here for months

The extension alongside Morrisons will bring KFC to the town, close to an existing McDonalds (no doubt to the delight of the seagulls). It will provide space also to Aldi, Iceland, Home Bargains, Greggs and Costa Coffee.

Those five chains, however, are already in Berwick. Aldi has announced it is relocating from its current smaller store about a third of a mile away.

I am concerned about the effects on Marygate by the development as the other four retailers all have units on the high street. What are the chances Iceland and Home Bargains in particular will run two units barely a mile apart in a town the size of Berwick?

The blight of the vacancies could get worse.

When I mention I live near Berwick, the usual reaction is “Oh, I have been through there on the train to Scotland”. I encourage people to get off and visit the place, which has a fascinating history as a border town.

It passed between English and Scottish hands at least 13 times until 1482. It boasts remnants of its medieval town walls, massive and unique ramparts from the Elizabethan period that ring the town, Britain’s earliest military barracks from the early 18th century, a fine Georgian town hall and some of the most varied Georgian architecture in the country.

Berwick really ought to be better-known. A couple of years ago the town hired Wayne Hemingway’s branding agency to devise an identity.

The founder of the Red or Dead footwear brand many years ago, Hemingway made a decent attempt to encapsulate the attractions of the town but the branding has been used only sporadically.

The town gets its name from being a centre of the important barley trade since Anglo-Saxon times. Barley was “bere”, wick is an old name for a farm or settlement. Berwick was Scotland’s major port for exporting barley many centuries ago.

On an excellent walking tour of the town, I learned from the knowledgeable guide that Berwick’s economic heyday was in the 1200s. Looking from the city walls down Marygate today, I could quite believe that.

It is not a prosperous place, although it is not hugely depressed either. Bridge Street, close to the River Tweed, is a very attractive enclave for attractive independent shops.

Berwick may have a unique history but it shares its present predicament as a retail centre with hundreds if not thousands of settlements across the UK. I do not have any great fix-it ideas for our challenged high streets but more care and attention on a small scale would be a very pleasing start.

As always, readers’ views on this subject would be welcome.

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