Middlesbrough town centre must “build back better” after COVID

A leading figure in the Tees Valley’s commercial property sector says Middlesbrough town centre must “build back better” as it recovers from the devastating impact of the pandemic.

Richard Wilson – a senior associate with Dodds Brown – told the BBC Tees Breakfast programme that the town centre was already changing before COVID-19, but the need for transition was now far more urgent.

Speaking on the third morning since non-essential shops were allowed to re-open, Mr Wilson said: “We’ve got to make it a great place to live, to work and socialise through leisure, culture and tourism.  We’ve got to build back better and re-balance our town centres to give people more reason to come in than just for the purpose of shopping.”

Richard Wilson of Dodds Brown

Richard Wilson of Dodds Brown

Even though retail had suffered badly because of the effect of the pandemic and the growth of online shopping, Mr Wilson said he had some cause for optimism.

Big names – such as Debenhams, Topshop, Monsoon and Clark’s shoe shop – had gone but independent traders were still starting new businesses.

Mr Wilson, who is the letting and managing agent for the Dundas Shopping Centre and Indoor Market, said: “Amazingly we’ve done some lettings during lockdown.  One of our craft retailers – Ellenswood Pyrography – who attended our monthly craft market decided in September to take a unit.  She’s effectively turned her hobby into a business and she’s really positive for the future.  There’s a bit of a cluster of craft retailers who all feed off each other and that’s really positive.”

Maurice and Sue Denny who opened Ellenswood Pyrography at the Dundas Indoor Market in September

Maurice and Sue Denny who opened Ellenswood Pyrography at the Dundas Indoor Market in September

He also highlighted the story of C.A.M. Family Meats – run by Colin and Craig Mackenzie – who took over Danny’s Family Butchers at Dundas in March 2020. “They’ve been lockdown heroes, delivering to vulnerable people’s homes,” Mr Wilson told listeners. “They built a really loyal customer following as a result of their efforts.  We just hope they go from strength to strength going forward.”

There were other reasons to be hopeful for the future of Middlesbrough town centre.  The first two buildings of the Centre Square office development were 80% let and occupiers were starting to move in. “All those extra people in the town centre will mean additional footfall for retail,” he said.

Steps were also being made to encourage more Teessiders to live in the town centre. Thirteen Housing Group is starting to build nearly 150 new homes in Gresham and there are also plans for residential development in Middlehaven.

Later this year the Northern School of Art opens its new campus opposite the BBC studios and as a result, said Mr Wilson, “there will be loads more students using the town centre every day.”

He told presenter Amy Oakden that this week marked a major step in the recovery of the town centre.  “It’s great to see retailers open and customers come back.  It’s not as busy as pre-pandemic but most of the hospitality sector doesn’t open fully until next month. So we expect another boost then and again in June as more restrictions are lifted and people have more confidence to go out.”