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‘Use us or lose us’: Independent shops in County Durham town open up on business


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Independent shops in a County Durham town have issued a “use us or lose us” message to shoppers as they opened up on how their businesses are running in the face of ongoing challenges facing the high street.

Those who own stores on Fore Bondgate in Bishop Auckland have highlighted several issues they have faced over the last couple of years – and how they hope things could improve for them in the future.

According to stores on the stretch of road in Bishop Auckland, issues including the closing of a walkway and loss of retailers at the nearby Newgate Centre in the town have been some of the biggest factors in recent times.

Over the last two decades high street brands like Wilko, Woolworths, Boots, and numerous bank branches have all closed in Bishop Auckland – leading to empty shops, which has had a knock-on effect on independent retailers.

This is combined with the demolition of Bishop Auckland bus station to allow for a new one to be built – which has seen bus passengers arrive into the town from a different route, instead of arriving next to Fore Bondgate and delivering football for businesses on the street. 

Myra Smith, who manages House of SmudgeMyra Smith, who manages House of Smudge (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Bishop Auckland – with the continued redevelopment, backed by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer and Durham County Council – which has seen the Spanish Gallery and Faith Museum open, and other plans are afoot. 

An abandoned shoe shop and pub on Newgate Street has recently been converted into the Jord restaurant, which is run by Masterchef contestant Mike Bartley. 

Elsewhere in the town, a new STACK development is being built.

The Masonic Hall on Victoria Avenue is undergoing conversion to become 10 apartments with an art space and office on the ground floor and is due to open in 2025. 

The scheme is part of a £12 million joint initiative between regeneration charity, The Auckland Project; Durham County Council and private sector developers.

Funding has been provided by the government’s Future High Streets Fund and Stronger Towns Fund, as part of the levelling up agenda. 

Independent shops on Fore Bondgate now hope this investment ‘trickles down’ to provide investment for the street and businesses on it. 

Myra Smith, who manages House of Smudge, which has been on Fore Bondgate for six years, is just one of the retailers who has seen a reduction in shoppers – but hopes that there is a “turning of the tides” for shops in Bishop Auckland. 

She said: “There have been several things that have happened that have seen a lack of shoppers here in Bishop Auckland – including the closing of big retailers on Newgate Street, and the changes in the bus station.

“There have also been several opportunities recently – which saw the Food Festival in the town, but it seemed like Fore Bondgate was forgotten about and blocked from the rest of the festivities.”

Mother and daughter Carol and Laura Knight, who own Tinkers TreasuresMother and daughter Carol and Laura Knight, who own Tinkers Treasures (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Another business a little further down the street, Tinkers Treasures, has seen similar issues – including the closure of B&M and Wilko in Bishop Auckland town centre over the last 18 months, which has made a “significant” impact on people visiting to shop in the town. 

Owners of the business, mother and daughter Carol and Laura Knight, have issued a “use it or lose it” warning to shoppers.

They said: “You definitely notice fewer people visiting the street since the closure of the bus station and the closure of the walkway through to the Newgate Centre. 

“We do have an online shop and do a few things through Facebook – but our main driver is people coming to the shop.

Lynn Talbot's Bondgate GalleryLynn Talbot’s Bondgate Gallery (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

“During the pandemic – we did well and got a lot of help, but in the few years after the pandemic, we have struggled a little.”

One business that has been on Fore Bondgate for 16 years is Lynn Talbot’s Bondgate Gallery, which specialises in art. 

Over the years, Lynn has enjoyed high footfall to her business, thanks to its proximity to the walkway of the Newgate Centre. 

But since the walkway was closed – the business owner has seen a real change in the number of people who choose to walk on Fore Bondgate. 

This is in addition to business owners wanting to fully pedestrianise the street, which would allow businesses to put street furniture and plants out – which Lynn believes would attract more potential customers.

 Mark Murray, who owns DC GiftsMark Murray, who owns DC Gifts (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

She said: “Fore Bondgate should be like York Shambles – pedestrianised, and it can then be a destination for shoppers. 

“What might put some people off is that cars zoom along the road when cars are allowed on it.”

Elsewhere on the street, Mark Murray, who owns DC Gifts is one of the newest names in Bishop Auckland after opening in August last year. 

Mr Murray has highlighted that he has to visit different market stalls across the region to make ends meet – and says if he had to rely on the income of the store on its own, he’d “struggle”.

He added: “Even though places like Stack have been announced for the town centre – we seem to struggle with footfall down this stretch of the street.”

everley Beal, who has been on the street for 17 years with her store Beverley'severley Beal, who has been on the street for 17 years with her store Beverley’s (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Across the road on Fore Bondgate, Beverley Beal has been on the street for 17 years with her store Beverley’s, and in Bishop Auckland for about 30 years. 

Despite the issues over the bus station and Newgate Centre affecting Beverley – she highlighted the issues with parking costs in Bishop Auckland town centre as a big factor, as opposed to the free parking shoppers can enjoy at Tindale Shopping Park and the new Bishop Auckland Retail Park.

Debbie Fasciano, who runs Gregg B&ADebbie Fasciano, who runs Gregg B&A (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Beverley said: “People still have to pay to park in Bishop Auckland – but pay for what? There are no big retailers here any more – people should be able to park for free and enjoy independent shops.

“Shoppers can easily park at Tindale and find big-name brands – that’s what people want. 

“I hold out hope that something can be done – but I fear we have lost footfall forever.”

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This dip in business is shared by Debbie Fasciano, who runs Gregg B&A, and has highlighted that business has been “dreadful” this year. 

Like other shops on Fore Bondgate, Debbie believes that high street brands need to start arriving in Bishop Auckland, which would bring shoppers into the town and attract them towards independent retailers too.

She said: “I don’t know what the solution is to go back – but hopefully a solution can be found soon – this year has been dreadful and lots of customers we’d normally have don’t seem to come in any more.”

In response to the concerns, Graham Wood, Durham County Council’s economic development manager, said: “We have committed significant investment into Bishop Auckland as part of plans to regenerate the town centre through a range of leisure and regeneration projects, including the repurposing and reopening of vacant properties and improving public spaces.

“Part of our strategy is to improve pedestrian links between Fore and North Bondgate through a range of public realm works to increase footfall between the two areas. Some of this work was completed in time for the Bishop Auckland Food Festival, allowing businesses to benefit from increased visitors. We are currently speaking with the businesses in these areas about their aspirations for the town ahead of the next phase of improvement works.

“Footfall in Bishop Auckland will also be greatly supported by a brand-new bus station and accompanying 124-space car park. Although the site is currently closed for construction, once complete the new bus station and associated improvements will provide modern and fit-for-purpose facilities, help support businesses by improving resident access and attracting visitors to the town, address shortages in car parking, and increase footfall into the town centre.”

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