BILLINGHAM residents fear their town has been "left behind" due to the demise of the town's key facilities, an increase in empty shops and lack of investment.

Locals fear the town has been left in the lurch and is bereft of much-needed investment to improve the area. 

The Northern Echo is visiting various towns and communities around the North East that were rejected funding from the government's Levelling Up Fund last year to speak to locals to find out how their area can be improved. 

On a recent visit to Billingham town centre business owners and shoppers were united in the belief that extortionate business rates and rents were the reason for the numerous shuttered shops around the main shopping area. 

The Northern Echo:

The Northern Echo:

A £20m request to revamp Billingham town centre’s Western Precinct using the cash from the Government's Levelling Up Fund was rejected last year much to the disdain of politicians and councillors. 

Billingham also lost out in its bid to the Towns Fund last year - with Thornaby (£23.9m) and Middlesbrough (£21.9m) getting the thumbs up from the Government.

The move was branded “disgraceful” by Stockton Council’s leader Bob Cook last month.

Read more: Government Levelling Up policy still unclear without white paper

The Refill Weigh Save shop is located on Billingham's Western Precinct and was opened by Jennifer and Steven Hewison in March last year. 

The Billingham-based couple jumped at the chance to open their own business but admit they were apprehensive about opening during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"We were very nervous when we opened," Jennifer said. "It's been slow and steady since we opened but we have got people coming from far and wide."

Mrs Hewison's assessment of the town centre was simple: "We need more shops". She added: "It needs more shops that bring people into the town."

The Northern Echo: Steven and Jennifer Hewison, owners of Refill Weigh SaveSteven and Jennifer Hewison, owners of Refill Weigh Save

Husband Steven agrees and said high rates are the death knell for many independent businesses. "The rents and rates are high, shops are struggling," he said. "We're battling as hard as we can to make it work. But it's not a desirable place to come anymore. 

"Billingham is always left behind."

Free parking, a new Library and Customer Service Centre and the Forum which houses an ice rink, pool and theatre are promising initiatives - but improving the shopping facilities is key according to everyone The Northern Echo spoke to. 

Read more: Success of levelling up for the North questioned

Drinking coffee while on their lunch breaks Trudy Scarth and Christine Pennington reminisced about the once "lovely" town centre filled with independent shops. 

But both agreed that the area has been left behind while nearby Teesside towns have benefited. 

Christine said: "Years ago it was a lovely town centre. We did not have to go out of Billingham but now the rents are too expensive on the shops for them to trade."

The Northern Echo:

Trudy, who works at the nearby Forum with Christine, said a lack of clothes shops sees people instead spend money in out-of-town retail parks but said many struggle with transport and travel costs. 

"Billingham is popular when the folklore festival is here but I don't think it will ever be a destination for people apart for the ice rink and theatre," Trudy added. 

"I think this is the worst town centre here in Teesside. They have done a lot to Middlesbrough and Stockton but we have been left out."

The Northern Echo: Co-owner of The Galleries Coffee Shop Carl Mackay. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTCo-owner of The Galleries Coffee Shop Carl Mackay. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

The Galleries Coffee Shop reopened for the first time in two years last June thanks in part to owners Carl and Gail Mackay who took over the popular venue. 

But again high business rates and rents were cited as making it difficult for businesses like theirs to thrive. 

Carl said: "We have three units here and it's very expensive. We're having to increase our prices to cover the costs and then increase them again because of the energy crisis."

The family work tirelessly behind the counter serving toasties, jacket potatoes and parmos to customers on a daily basis - and Carl's experience of owning a pub and a burger van in the town sees him admit: "I have seen a lot of changes". 

Gail said new businesses would benefit from either Government or council funding to kickstart their new businesses but instead have to fend for themselves. 

She explained: "When we took it on it was so derelict. We have used a lot of our own savings to get it off the ground and a bit of help to manage it would be nice."

Read more: North East councils spend thousands on consultants for Levelling Up cash

Back on the high street and Billy Bingham, 65, is sympathetic towards Billingham's demise but says locals feel forgotten about. 

"I have lived here for 42 years but the situation here is the same as most towns - high streets are struggling.

"We have got shops empty, gaining nothing financially. Why don't they reduce the rates to get them opened up and the chance to build the business? 

"We feel left behind considering what it was 40 years ago. There was not an empty shop and we saw a lot more people."

The Northern Echo:

The Northern Echo:  Labour MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham Labour MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham

Alex Cunningham MP for Stockton North, which covers the town, is scathing of the Government's decision making when allocating its levelling up funding. 

He said: "It would appear the Government are just making political decisions these days, which is very sad because the need for funding in Billingham is considerable. 

"We have a town centre that desperately needs investment. The council have an ambition to make something happen but the Government seems to have turned its head against us."

The regeneration of the Western Precinct is a scheme that's in dire need of investment, Mr Cunningham added. 

"It's a case of making the town centre a viable shopping and destination centre. We've already seen investment by the council into the new library and customer services centre in the town but we need to bring more services into the town centre to make it a destination place, giving retailers the support they need. 

"We need to put an end to all these empty shops and dilapidated buildings. 

"The Forum itself had massive investment a few years ago and sees thousands of people visiting it. We need to build on that and get more people into the town centre and that will help the retail businesses as well."

The Northern Echo: The Forum centre. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTThe Forum centre. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Asked why more deprived Billingham hadn’t got the money this time around, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak said more than 100 different places had received cash from the pot. And he added the North East had received the “third highest per capita” allocation out of all areas in the UK.

The Chancellor also pointed to other pots of money distributed across Teesside as evidence of things it was doing in the region.

Mr Sunak added: “Thornaby and Middlesbrough have received Towns Fund funding in the past - Darlington Station is being upgraded and the Freeport.

“There is lots going on in Teesside which is good for everyone in the broader area.”

Stockton Council chiefs have confirmed they will work to lodge a “rock solid” bid for Billingham once again next year.

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