Open for business

TRADE has plummeted for Morpeth businesses as roadworks drive away customers.

Two national retailers in the area have reported an 18 per cent and 11 per cent drop in customers, down about 5,500 and 3,500 people respectively, in the first week of the town centre works.

And they warned that the situation was even worse for smaller, independent shops, with some suffering a 50 per cent fall in custom.

The slump began when a one-way system was introduced in Bridge Street, Newgate Street, Manchester Street and Dacre Street last week, particularly when there were teething problems on the first day.

The system was quickly amended, which made significant improvements, and this week Stanley Terrace was re-opened to traffic both ways.

However, it has so far made little difference to custom.

One store manager of a national chain, who does not wish to be named, said: “If the council reacted more quickly in the first week, the damage wouldn’t have been as extensive as it was. I believe it is going to be quite a long haul before we get back to normal.

“It is going to be a very hard slog for everybody.”

Chairman of the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade John Beynon said the decline may not have been as bad had Northumberland County Council responded to the group’s calls for free parking during the 10-week works.

“We wrote to Morpeth county councillors in November to say that we anticipated a lot of problems when the roadworks were taking place and gave a couple of ideas. One of the main ideas was free parking, even for just a short period of time.

“If that had been taken up, for the last few months we could have been putting a positive spin on the situation by saying Morpeth is open and there is free parking. Unfortunately, the council has refused to speak to us about it,” he said.

The problems were reported at a meeting of the chamber on Monday as members discussed plans for a fight-back.

They have agreed to set up a £2,000 promotional war chest for a multi-pronged attack to try to tempt back shoppers.

Member Ken Stait said: “The actual movement of traffic through the town isn’t bad, it is moving freely. The problem is that the customers’ perception is that it is not moving freely. That has been reinforced by the regional media, particularly radio and television, and people are being told to avoid Morpeth like the plague.

“We need to start off with a bit of self-help and use some of the chamber’s resources to promote Morpeth and give a positive statement that the traffic situation is not as bad as has been made out.”

He also suggested that the group obtains data about the loss of trade to seek rate reductions from the council.

Members agreed to pursue the idea, but will also repeat calls for free-parking periods.

Fashion boutique owner Susan Bellamy said: “I would rather propose free parking over the business rates because for a fairly small shop you don’t pay a lot anyway.”

She added: “If we can get the council to stop the parking charges even for one day a week on a Saturday, we could make publicity out of that.

“I think that would be a good benefit and I don’t think it would affect the flow of traffic because on Saturdays the traffic is quite quiet anyway.”

She also suggested a £10 offer for shoppers to run in all businesses throughout the town.

The idea of a park-and-ride scheme, running from County Hall to the town centre, was also proposed, and complementary therapist Josie Donaldson said customers had asked why extra train services couldn’t be provided.

“Customers have said they would have preferred to come to appointments by train, but there has been no attempt to put on extra services to Morpeth,” she said.

“There is an awful lot of people who wouldn’t like to drive in, but I get clients from Newcastle and Durham who would use the train. It seems there has been no attempt to look at how people are going to get into Morpeth other than the one-way system.”

Chamber member Les Sage said there could be promotional events or later opening nights in the town, and follow member Nic Best said retailers could use their windows for advertising as drivers using the one-way system would be more likely to see them.

The chamber agreed to set up a working group to set promotional ideas in motion.

Mr Sage said: “We are always saying we have to keep our money for a rainy day and I think we are in a storm at the moment. I think somebody has to take action tomorrow and have a sum of money available to do so.”

The group will seek match-funding from those carrying out the work, Northumbrian Water, Northern Gas Networks and Dransfield Properties.

The Greater Morpeth Development Trust may also offer support.

Mr Beynon said: “I don’t think we are going to get much help from the council so we will have to do it by ourselves.”

l Free parking not ruled out, Page 2