Councillors have stressed the importance of making Sunderland city centre “accessible for all residents” and a “more attractive place” following news of an impending closure of a retail giant.
It comes as Marks & Spencer confirmed it is proposing to close its branch in Sunderland city centre.
Bosses at M&S said the High Street West shop would remain trading until a new 47,000 sq ft shop at the Galleries Retail Park in Washington is ready to open.
Councillors at the latest meeting of Sunderland City Council’s scrutiny co-ordinating committee discussed the importance of improving the city centre to attract residents following the latest M&S announcement.
Councillor Antony Mullen, leader of the Conservative Group on the council, called for a “strong retail and leisure offer to be provided”.
He added the city centre has already lost Debenhams and Wilko shops in recent times.
Cllr Mullen said: “It just feels like there needs to be a more joined up business, leisure and retail strategy, with housing in that mix somewhere, to make the city centre accessible to all residents of the city.
“So it’s about catering for what they want, rather than it being exclusively very business oriented, and failing to be able to compete with, for example, retail parks outside of the city, or the Metrocentre, or the Metro through to Newcastle taking people to where there is a bigger retail offer.
“What kind of offer can be made to retailers to make it a more attractive place to come and fill the empty units?
“Now, the three major buildings [Debenhams, Wilko and soon to be M&S] that we’ve got that will stand empty basically in each corner of the city centre, it just makes it feel very empty and dilapidated and very rundown.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Peter Walton, Fulwell ward representative, added any plans to redevelop the M&S site should help connect the Vaux site to the rest of the city centre to help make the area “more attractive”.
He added the council should look at how the city centre can learn from the likes of the Galleries Shopping Centre in Washington, after noting how busy it was when he last visited.
Meanwhile, Labour’s councillor John Usher, who represents the Redhill ward, noted it is “really difficult” to know what to do at the M&S site given the change in retail habits.
He said: “The way people shop has changed, everybody knows everybody does things online, we can complain as much as we like about retail, but I don’t think we’ll ever get the type of store that we’ve been used to.
“In my day it was Binns [department store], you’re not going to get these types of stores back, because of the way we shop, so I don’t know how we attract that type of business back.”
However, he praised the transformation of Mackie’s Corner, on the corner of Bridge Street and Fawcett Street, which is home to a number of local independent businesses.
Cllr Usher added: “We should be looking at models like that to maybe provide better retail opportunities.”
Cllr Mullen stated a design code shaping the appearance of shops in the city centre could help boost the appeal of the area, and he also cited the Mackie’s Corner model as one to follow.
He continued: “If we think about retail as more of an experience, people can buy things on the internet, so to get them to actually come out of the house they need to experience something.
“It feels like it is probably the way forward, a mix of retail and leisure in an area where they actually want to come for the experience of being there, rather than the transaction of buying something.”
City council officers at the meeting, which took place at Sunderland City Hall on Thursday, 18 January, stressed the comments will all be fed back to the ruling cabinet as part of discussions around the city plan for Sunderland.