Business

Harrogate: What happened when the shops left town

Harrogate Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Harrogate's commercial property market is the toughest some experts can recall

Cream teas, quaint streets and stylish shops have made Harrogate one of the most successful and popular shopping destinations in the north of England.

But there are now gaps on its High Street like never before.

"Five years ago it would be unheard of to have large empty units on James Street, the prime shopping street in our town. Businesses were fighting to get into these units," says Robert Ogden, who jointly runs a family jewellery business on the street.

This attractive spa town has weathered the huge changes taking place in retail better than most places.

But in the past two years it's seen a succession of big name chains pull out, such as Topman, Miss Selfridge, Cath Kidston, Prezzo and Jamie's Italian.

Many have been the result of restructuring deals known as company voluntary arrangements (CVA).

They're a form of insolvency proceedings which struggling businesses can enter into with their creditors - including landlords and suppliers - to cut costs.

CVAs have become a controversial escape route for retailers as it allows them to close stores they no longer want. Since January 2018, 23 chains in Harrogate have done CVAs.

According to research compiled for BBC News by the Local Data Company (LDC), 1,676 stores in the UK have closed across these brands, including 302 casual dining outlets. The LDC found that 63% were still sitting empty by the end of August this year.

Harrogate along with Reading, Birmingham and Nottingham are the four locations most affected with 10 closures each.

"I suppose we all got a little complacent and thought it wouldn't happen here," says Mr Ogden.

Expertise, service and some eye-catching jewels have helped keep his business trading in the same ornate store for more than a century. But he says Harrogate isn't immune from the challenges of consumers' changing shopping habits as well as rising costs.

"The cost of trading in Harrogate is quite high," Mr Ogden says. "The rents are high, the rates are high and if footfall just drops off a fraction, it becomes less viable for these larger chains to trade from Harrogate.

"We've got to start acting and reacting to what's happening, for instance some free parking would help entice more shoppers into town."

Image caption Lower business rates and parking charges would help, says letting agent Robin Hanson

So, how might the vacant space be filled?

A few streets away, the Early Learning Centre is still sitting empty some nine months after its management did a CVA.

"It was all very sudden," says letting agent Robin Hanson. "They left and handed back the keys. It's an old Victorian building and the landlord was left with all the fixtures and fittings as well as repairs. It'll cost as much as a £100,000 to put right and re-let."

It's the toughest market that this property expert has ever seen.

"Rent and rates are very big overheads, so landlords are looking at having to reduce rents. There's a shop just let in Harrogate at half the rent that the previous tenants were paying," Mr Hanson says.

"The government needs to reduce the business rates liability and I also think the council needs to reduce car parking costs."

He says the landlord for the former ELC property doesn't want to take his chances by leasing to another retail chain. He's after a local trader looking to expand.

Image caption Jessica Wyatt wants to see more independent shops in the town centre

When Jessica Wyatt and her mum spotted a big gap on James Street, they decided to make a move, relocating their quirky cafe, Mama Doreen's.

Carluccio's, the casual dining chain, did a CVA and pulled out. The company had signed a 25-year lease as it rapidly over-expanded.

Ms Wyatt says: "We'd been trading for 11 years and had premises just down the road. We'd been looking for the right location to expand. We did get a decent deal and our landlord has been lovely. He could see it would work and he's taken a chance on us."

The cafe has only been open four weeks, but is doing a roaring trade, she says.

"It's so sad to see all these empty shops. We felt like our presence was needed in the town centre as an independent. We need more independents and we need Harrogate to be back on top."

Image copyright Alamy

Amid the turmoil on our High Streets, Lucy Stainton, head of retail and strategic partnerships at the Local Data Company, says there is appetite for new space and the biggest growth is coming from independent retailers.

"The challenges facing national chains have presented an opportunity for local independent business to open in these once unaffordable locations using local support and a new, authentic offer to tailor products and services to the local population."

While other towns are struggling for survival, the challenge here in Harrogate is to keep it special.

"What we don't want to be is a plush dormitory for Leeds or London," says Mr Ogden.

"We've got to be a destination for shopping and we need to maintain that crown."

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