“Shanty town” claimas New Squaresunits remain empty

Date: Friday 15th February 2019
Empty shops in New Squares are in stark contrast to Kirkby Stephen (left), where they are all occupied.
Empty shops in New Squares are in stark contrast to Kirkby Stephen (left), where they are all occupied.

PENRITH’S New Squares development has been labelled “a shanty town” and “desolate” due to the large number of empty units.

Scott Jackso
Scott Jackso

At least 13 of the 24 units that take up the site from Kilgour Street, through Brewery Lane to Princes Street have remained empty, leading to councillors questioning what is being done to amend the situation.

County councillor David Whipp (Con, Penrith Rural) questions whether freeholder Sainsbury’s has been fully open to leasing to stores to direct competitors and whether Eden District Council is just “happy to pick up the rent regardless”.

He hopes the announcement two weeks ago that a delicatessen and butchers business is set to move into a unit may be “a sign of change” but says he is yet to be convinced.

Landowner Eden Council receives around £1 million of rent annually from tenant Sainsbury’s whether the stores are empty or occupied. The council says that the vacancy level for commercial units in the town centre remains below the national average.

Penrith mayor and town council chairman Scott Jackson said: “It looks a bit like a shanty town with the faded boards up, dark empty shop sites and no-one around.

“There have been at least three issues with New Squares. They are difficult to let and the bigger units’ size don’t lend themselves to the space retailers want. There has been a significant change to businesses preferring a smaller multi-use presence, with a high street presence and space for website order goods.

“Some people will order online but want to do returns in store. Businesses I’ve spoken to are not looking for long leases either, and New Squares was built at a time when it wasn’t quite appropriate. It was hit by the recession and larger units are unfashionable. It needs repainting and a new approach.”

At least 25 new businesses have come into Penrith and replaced closed stores not in New Squares, but still more than half of the units in the development have been continually unoccupied.

The town council’s planning committee has recommended approval of the “upmarket” butchers, deli and cafe, calling it a “step forward”. It will be the first new-to-Penrith retailer in the development since Sports Direct in early 2013. Since then Sainsbury’s sister company, Argos, and O2 have relocated from Middlegate, Boots has opened an opticians and Highways England has set up offices in New Squares. However, two other businesses moved from the development to Angel Square.

Mr Whipp, who is also a town councillor, said that sun-kissed, faded “available” signs were changed only when he complained to Sainsbury’s.

“Visitors are likely to park in Sainsbury’s as it’s well signposted with three hours’ free parking, then the first things they’ll see are Sainsbury’s large store and an empty street. It paints a poor picture of Penrith,” he said.

“When I walk through it I feel desolate. It’s hard, unattractive and feels like not a nice place.

“If Sainsbury’s hadn’t come along when Lowther Manelli had their funding pulled, Eden Council would have been left with a hole in the ground costing them, so to get Sainsbury’s to do the work and pay them £1 million was a smart move.

“But does Eden Council now feel indebted to Sainsbury’s and reticent to put pressure on them for leaving shops empty? The idea of New Squares was to attract shops like New Look and H&M. That’s changed and we need to focus on our independents who help Penrith’s high street survive.

“If you compare the landlord of Angel Square to New Squares, Angel Square will do deals and compromise on size to keep them filled. Sainsbury’s clearly aren’t doing that and Eden Council is letting this continue, which is bad for Penrith.”

A Eden District Council spokesman said: “We recognise the public’s interest in Penrith New Squares and the work that the council’s tenant, Sainsbury’s, undertakes to market the available retail units or find alternative uses for them, such as office accommodation for organisations such as the Highways Agency.

“Despite the challenging times for the retail sector nationally, the vacancy level for all commercial units in Penrith town centre (10 per cent in November, 2018) remains lower than the national retail average (11.5 per cent average over 2018, Local Data Company).

“The council and its partnersw remain committed to making our local towns as vibrant as possible through investing in a programme of events and looking at initiatives such as pop-up shops to add value to the quality existing retail offer.

“The council is also putting in an expression of interest for the Government’s Future High Streets Fund for Penrith town centre. If successful in stage one, the council will receive a revenue grant to work with partners to develop potential projects to make Penrith’s high street fit for the future.”

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “We continue to work closely with the council and our partners to fill the vacant units.”