One of the characteristics of Morpeth that sets the town apart from so many others in the region is the strength of the independent shops and businesses trading in the high street.
There’s a wealth of them spread along Newgate Street, in Oldgate, the New Market and Bridge Street that you won’t find anywhere else, offering all manner of goods and services.
Even if people shopped just once or twice a week in a local shop that could make all the difference between that business having a viable future or facing closure.George Williams, Chairman Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade
Butchers, bakers, greengrocers, hair stylists, florists, bridal gown stockists, a photographer, cafes and coffee shops, cheese and wine shops...the list goes on and on.
Independently-run, mostly by their owners, they give the town its uniqueness, trading as they do alongside many of the big high street names. Many would argue that the balance is just about right, helping Morpeth to justifiably claim to be the premier market town north of the Tyne. Figures show, however, that many local people still continue to shop outside Morpeth, and that is a trend that the core partners on the Town Team — Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, Morpeth Town Council, the Greater Morpeth Development Trust (GMDT), Sanderson Arcade and Inside Morpeth magazine – are anxious to reverse.
So the team members are keen to work with town traders, particularly the independent ones, to help promote and market them and encourage more people to shop with them.
“There’s an old cliché that says ‘Use them, or lose them’ and that’s precisely what we don’t want to see happening in the town,” said George Williams, Chairman of the chamber of trade and one of its two representatives on Morpeth’s Town Team.
So the team is planning to embark on a campaign with the traders and business people to encourage more of the ‘missing’ Morpeth shoppers to spend more of their money in the town.
Figures show that for every £10 spent in a local independent shop, at least £8 of the money stays in the town. In the multiples and nationals exactly the reverse is the case.
The independent shops and businesses also provide much-needed employment for local people.
“Even if people shopped just once or twice a week in a local shop that could make all the difference between that business having a viable future or facing closure,” said Mr Williams.
“This is not about doom-and-gloom, or being pessimistic about the future of Morpeth, quite the contrary.
“Morpeth has a future, in fact, a much, much brighter one than many other small towns because of the diversity of our offer in such an historic and attractive setting. Where else do you find beautiful parks and riverside walks within a stone’s throw of a town centre?
“Where else can you find an elegant and stylish shopping mall trading alongside small business? Where else can you find so many excellent coffee shops, cafes and restaurants catering for all tastes? However, we are not naïve enough to think that everything in the garden is rosy. We know many small businesses still have concerns and we need to work together to address them because we have proved that we can do that successfully.”
For instance, the town team, as well as the chamber and the town council, successfully lobbied for car parking charges to be dropped by the county council, and there is clear evidence of a noticeable increase in the shoppers’ footfall around the town since that happened.
“The solution is not perfect because there are still concerns, particularly focused on the fact that there are not enough long-stay spaces around the town centre especially for workers, and we are pursuing that point,” said Mr Williams.
The team is aware there are other issues raised by the small business sector that need addressing, such as better signposting and signage to particularly direct visiting shoppers into Newgate Street, Oldgate and the New Market. There are also calls for the lighting to be improved in the T&G Allan alleyway linking Newgate Street to Back Riggs.
GMDT has already delivered more than 80 signs around town focussed primarily on its heritage and the natural environment, and now there will be a shift towards highlighting Morpeth’s key commercial districts to help shoppers navigate their way around the town centre.
“What we plan to do now with business owners, starting with Newgate Street, is to sit down with them in an open and frank discussion so they can air their concerns directly to us as the town team,” said Mr Williams.
“They need to tell us what they want and what they think needs doing to improving trading opportunities for them, and if we can influence that we will.”
The starting point will be to organise a meeting that will take place as soon as possible in Newgate Street, giving all shop and business owners there the opportunity to attend.
“The success of the town team over the past two years has been down to strong partnership working resourced through the Portas initiative,” said Mr Williams.
“This year each partner contributed to a working budget to implement long-term aims and a strategy for taking Morpeth forward over the next few years.
“As part of that process we now need to strengthen our direct links with small local businesses so that we can work with them for the good of the town, as well as ensuring their retail sector has a strong and viable future in Morpeth.”