As part of our special report into the issues on Durham's Silver Street, retail expert Graham Soult says that owners need to act to improve some properties - but points out there are positive signs too.

HOME until recently to big-names like M&S, Topshop and Pret, Silver Street has long been seen as Durham’s prime thoroughfare, writes Graham Soult.

With many of those well-known brands gone, it’s not surprising that questions are being asked about the street’s fortunes. However, it’s important to understand why and how Silver Street is evolving – and what that means for its future.

People often assume that Durham County Council owns all the city’s commercial premises – if only that were so, tackling the challenge of empty shops would be much easier.

In reality, retail buildings are usually owned by private landlords, some based locally, but many located further afield. So, where a property is vacant, one of the first jobs for local place leaders is often to figure out who the owner is, and get them engaged.

The good news is that many owners of vacant properties in Silver Street – such as the former Topshop – are actively investing in those premises. In some cases, vacancy is being used as an opportunity to repurpose underused upper floors, often for housing, and to carve out access through part of the empty ground floor. So, an empty shop – for now – at street level doesn’t necessarily mean that work isn’t going on inside.

That said, there are some Silver Street units in poor condition, and where little appears to be happening. such as the ex-Pret and VPZ sites. The state of these properties just isn’t acceptable, and we need to redouble our efforts to get the owners to act.

The Northern Echo: Retail expert Graham Soult, pictured here in Durham, says that despite appearances, there are some positive signs for Silver StreetRetail expert Graham Soult, pictured here in Durham, says that despite appearances, there are some positive signs for Silver Street

Amid all the challenges, there are many positive signs too. Overall, Silver Street is in better shape now than it was early in the pandemic.

Yorkshire Trading and The Works have helped generate activity at the top of the street, while recently opened independent venues Café Ravika and Rib N Reef enliven the approach from Framwellgate Bridge.

Indie jeweller Moon is soon to relocate into the former EE, which is a great vote of confidence in the city, and will bring colour and sparkle to a prominent frontage. Elsewhere, the ex-Hotter is let, and should be occupied soon, as is the former Clintons.

Importantly, many of Silver Street’s issues now are the result of it historically being dominated by national retailers – some of which, like Topshop, Hotter and Carphone Warehouse, have closed all or many of their stores. So, it’s positive that new arrivals are a bit less “clone town”, and a bit more independent and diverse.

Indeed, independents are key to the future of Durham – and not just in the brilliant and fully let Market Hall. Other parts of the city centre, including North Road, Elvet Bridge, Saddler Street, Riverwalk and Prince Bishops, have seen a flurry of interesting new businesses opening, with at least 30 retail and hospitality new arrivals even during the pandemic.

From distinctive shops like Discovering Durham and Elvet & Bailey, to lovely new venues like The Curious Mr Fox and El Pincho, it’s fantastic that businesses are choosing to invest in Durham, even in these crazy times.

As the city, like everywhere else, deals with how bricks-and-mortar retail is changing, there are bound to be some growing pains. The Indie Durham City campaign that I manage for City of Durham Parish Council will continue to work with partners like Durham County Council and Durham BID to promote improvements, and keep championing all the good things we already have.

Rest assured, though – there is no shortage of interest from businesses wanting to open in Durham, and I’ll keep doing my bit to match up potential tenants with vacant premises that they can bring back to life.

* Graham Soult is a retail consultant, who works with businesses across the UK. His website is at

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