For the past four years Morpeth Town Team has been involved in organising or supporting high profile events to entertain and interest residents, as well as encourage visitors into the town.
Events include Morpeth’s food and drink festival, Morpeth Fair, the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering, music in the Market Place, the switch-on of the Christmas lights and a late night shopping evening.
“We now have three years of data, which we are using to help understand more fully the usage of our town centre, shopping and parking habits, and perhaps predict some trends for the future.”Coun Ken Brown
The core members of the team — Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, the Greater Morpeth Development Trust, Morpeth Town Council, Sanderson Arcade and Inside Morpeth — also recognise the importance of working behind the scenes to achieve their vision of continuing to develop the town centre as a place to meet, shop and socialise.
They are conscious of the need to build up a solid database of facts, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence to influence decision making. So for the past three years the team has organised benchmarking exercises, which have produced vital information about the town centre and the way it is used.
The most recent exercise has reaffirmed some of the data compiled in the previous two studies, including the fact that shop vacancy rates in Morpeth continue to be well below regional and national averages. The figure a few months ago stood at 6.5 per cent whilst the national figure is close to 12 per cent.
Coun Ken Brown, who takes the lead in benchmarking, said that the impression of vacant properties is skewed because some of the empty premises are in prominent locations, such as the Queen’s Head Hotel in Bridge Street and the former Benfield Motors showroom in Castle Square.
“Generally, if premises become vacant they are usually taken over again pretty quickly in the town centre, but it is something we need to keep a close eye on,” he said.
Footfall counts have remained fairly constant in locations such as Sanderson Arcade, Bridge Street and New Market, although the exercise recorded considerable increases in Newgate Street.
“This suggests that perhaps, contrary to popular local opinion, people are visiting Newgate Street,” said Coun Brown.
“We do feel, however, that we need to undertake further investigation into the shopping habits of visitors to Newgate Street through on-street interviews and discussions with traders.”
Perhaps the most important issue in Morpeth continues to be car parking. Led by the chamber of trade, the town campaigned to have charges removed across Northumberland to be replaced by a disc control system.
Before car parking charges were removed two years ago around a third of the spaces in Morpeth town centre were empty. Last year when the benchmark exercise was carried out only 12 per cent of spaces were vacant on a market day, while on busy days, such as Saturdays, as many as 92 per cent of spaces were occupied.
Coun Brown says this gives cause for concern because the replacement of the old Morrison’s store with three retail units, significant housing developments, the fall in fuel prices and cut-backs in public transport is adding to the demand for spaces.
There are more than 1,500 parking spaces across 23 on and off-street car parks in Morpeth town centre, but the Town Team shares concerns that the balance between long and short-stay spaces needs adjustment.
Many traders are reporting problems among staff in finding long-stay spaces, and there are concerns that the situation could become more difficult with a hundred more jobs being created as a result of the redevelopment of the former Morrisons.
Coun Brown said: “Long-stay parking in St James’s’ car park is usually always fully occupied, with some observations indicating that spaces are being used by residents from nearby streets, while Dacre Street has a three-hour limit and the planned re-location of the library to Manchester Street could well increase demand for spaces in that area.
“One solution could be to swap the time limit designations between St James’s and Dacre Street car parks. The Morrisons’ staff allocation in Staithes Lane also appears to be disproportionate to actual use, with 60 vacant spaces frequently recorded, while the reservations for market traders at Matheson’s Gardens are under-used.
“The next most under-used car park appears to be the Terrace, but little has been done to promote it for short-stay, and we also feel improvements are needed in signs directing motorists to appropriate car parks.”
The Town Team is engaging with Northumberland County Council to identify solutions. A town centre workers’ car parking survey is available on the moreinmorpeth.co.uk website.
Coun Brown said: “We are immensely grateful to more than a dozen volunteers who gave up their time to help us with the exercise. They stood on the street assessing shoppers’ footfall, visited car parks to record usage, and delivered questionnaires to every shop and business.
“As a result of their support we now have three years of data, which we are using to help understand more fully the usage of our town centre, shopping and parking habits, and perhaps predict some trends for the future.
“As a team we see the town centre continuing to be the hub of Morpeth as we further develop its unique blend of national and niche local businesses whilst retaining the character and charm of our wonderful historic town within a modern setting.”