I STARTED my business 30 years ago, with my first business partner, John McNally, from a room at the back of a fast food outlet in Northumberland Street, Darlington, writes Graham Robb, former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

The firm has grown to advise some of the best businesses in the North-East and provide some great people with good jobs.

I could only do it because in 1988 the climate for small firms in Darlington was enhanced by a vibrant town centre that has gradually diminished in status and attraction.

The latest announcements from Binns and Marks & Spencer have stirred a real sense of anger in me about the local policies that have made the plight of our town worse than our neighbours.

Obviously, the trend towards online shopping is a primary reason for the depressed High Street.

However, in Darlington we appear to be faring worse than elsewhere.

Before the announcement of the M&S and Binns closures, there were 85 empty units in the town equivalent to 15 per cent of the total retail, this is 3.9 per cent higher than the national average of 11.1 per cent. The vacant units account for 14.2 per cent of the floor space available, again higher than the national average of 9.5 per cent.

Last year 24 stores closed and nine opened, one of the worst performances in the North-East – but nearby Stockton had a net gain!

Given that over many years, people in the town have objected to the rise of parking restrictions, more pedestrianisation and new charges to park on the street, it is entirely fair to point out to local council policy makers that our local decline was predicted.

I have talked to councillors in both main parties about this.

The Conservatives objected to most of the historic changes but have yet to announce policies that to look to the future. For now, Labour is adopting token solutions – such as free parking on the fringe of the town centre – in a bid to distance itself from criticism.

In light of the policy vacuum, I joined with friends in business to organise the “I’m Backing Darlington” town centre meeting last week. The format allowed local businesses to both let off some steam and – more importantly – suggest some positive ideas for the future.

More than 80 people attended and while the meeting has not morphed into a fully-fledged campaign, there is strong demand for one with numerous people contacting us afterwards asking to arrange follow up sessions on the same independent, arms-length basis from the council.

This is something we are actively considering. However, for the moment I would like to hear the council’s formal response to the ideas and themes that emerged, which were:

  • Free two hour parking throughout the town;
  • Radical review of town centre sites to be developed;
  • Reduction in the size of the town centre, create a new core and build out from it;
  • Create more homes within town centre;
  • Return the outdoor market to the Market Square to create focal point;
  • Allow parking in the Market Square and increase spaces on Skinnergate;
  • Embrace digital businesses with special support;
  • Introduce a more effective Anti-Social Behaviour Team and Youth Engagement Team;
  • Introduce Park & Ride system for office workers, freeing space for shoppers;
  • Create a town centre regeneration company, with planning oversight;
  • Create attractive ‘corridor’ from railway station to the town centre;
  • Dynamically promote Darlington as the birthplace of the railways in run up to Stockton & Darlington Railway’s 2025 anniversary;
  • Promote more start-up businesses;
  • Cover the town’s historic yards – forming all-weather shopping streets.

Although we were all dismayed to see the town centre’s decline over the past few years, the meeting was really positive. It was heartening to see so many people taking a stand and fighting to improve our town.

The idea I favoured was a town centre regeneration company with some oversight over planning. I remember working to promote such an organisation in Newcastle – the Graingertown Partnership. It transformed the city by bringing more people to live in Newcastle and creating zones that effectively changed the landscape.

There is a sense of urgency from the local business community, and a fear that the council’s action plan may move too slowly. There is a strange mixture of a desire to engage and a feeling of “I told you so”, when it comes to the effects of existing policies.

My challenge to the council is to embrace the ideas that came from our local community, to engage in new and meaningful ways and to do so with haste.

  • If you are interested in joining an "I’m Backing Darlington" campaign group, please get in touch with me on Twitter, @grahamrobb, or by email graham.robb@recognitionpr.co.uk