DARLINGTON town centre has charm galore, writes North-East retail consultant Graham Soult – so what can it do to really thrive? 

The Northern Echo: THRIVING: Graham Soult on Grange Road in Darlington. He says there is a strong independent retail and leisure offer in this area of the town

THRIVING: Graham Soult on Grange Road in Darlington. He says there is a strong independent retail and leisure offer in this area of the town

IN my job as a “North-East Mary Portas”, I relish the chance to visit and work with shops and retail centres all over the country; but Darlington, you’ll be pleased to hear, is still one of my favourite places.

With the recent or impending departures of big names like TK Maxx, Toni&Guy and Starbucks, it’s not surprising that some people are worried about Darlington town centre’s future.

Losing popular stores is never welcome, but some churn is an inevitable part of how any retail centre evolves. More often than not, new businesses pop up to fill the gaps, and it’s only when such units remain vacant in the long term that you’ve real cause for concern.

My overall impression is that Darlington town centre remains in pretty good shape. House of Fraser, for instance, recently benefited from a major makeover, which is a fantastic sign of its long-term commitment to the town.

Crucially, it’s not just big names that contribute to Darlington’s appeal as a place to shop and visit. One of the town’s strengths is its independent retail and leisure offer, particularly around Grange Road and Coniscliffe Road. This area is a fantastic asset to the town, full of colour, interest and distinctiveness.

So, if these are all Darlington’s strengths, what do we need to do to retain and enhance the town’s appeal?

As I argued recently, one of my main areas of concern is making sure that basic housekeeping in the town centre is maintained. These are the factors – such as street cleaning, flowers, and tourist information – that help make a place feel safe, welcoming, attractive and vibrant.

Indeed, recent research by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) found that a retail centre’s visual appearance was the second most important factor influencing its vitality. A visually attractive town centre not only encourages shoppers to visit, but also makes the prospect of businesses investing more likely.

Of course, I recognise that local authorities, including Darlington, are having to make unwanted cuts in many areas of operation. And in Darlington, such pressures are compounded by the recent closure of the private-sector Business Improvement District (BID), Distinct Darlington, which rate-paying businesses chose not to renew.

The BID’s demise has left a big gap that no-one else has yet filled.

So, what can Darlington do? One thing I’d like to see more of is marketing. With the BID gone, it’s hard to find a definitive source, on the web or social media, where a prospective visitor to Darlington can find all the information they need in one place.

The local authority also needs to do come up with new initiatives that drive footfall, such as specialist markets and other events – perhaps inspired by Middlesbrough’s popular Orange Pip Market.

In the IPM work on vitality, the number-one factor was “ensuring the centre is open when the catchment needs it”, and nowhere has delivered this better than Newcastle’s ‘Alive After Five’ initiative. Darlington, in contrast, remains a town centre that largely shuts down at 6pm, and would benefit from growth of its evening economy.

There’s room for action on parking too. Stockton has invested in affordable parking, with the first hour free in all the council’s short-stay car parks. Darlington, in contrast, currently offers no free parking at all. So, it makes sense to introduce initiatives like ‘Free After 3’ if there are quiet times when parking spaces are currently underused.

In summary, Darlington has oodles of character, a buzzing independent scene, and, even with recent closures, a strong retail offer for a town of its size. The key to its future success is to cherish, champion and make the most of these qualities – making sure the town centre is clean and attractive, hassle-free to visit, open when people want it to be, and a place that everyone has heard great things about.