A ‘tale of two towns’ as chasm of wealth widens

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EBRAHIM Laher looks out of the window of his town centre hardware shop and all he can see is boarded up buildings. It is a view uninterrupted, with a conspicuous absence of Christmas crowds streaming past.

Mr Laher, 54, is one of the longest-serving independent retailers in Dewsbury and has owned his shop for 20 years.

The current battered face of its high street is now, he says, as unrecognisable to him as it must be for the sculptures of Dewsbury’s Victorian forefathers gazing down over the town in which they helped instill such a sense of pride.

Stark figures released earlier this year revealed Dewsbury as now having one of the highest shop vacancy rates in the country, with almost one in three shops empty. This steep decline is being replicated elsewhere in the region such as Rotherham, Doncaster and Bradford, where figures released this month show almost one in five of city centre stores is currently vacant.

Yet elsewhere in Yorkshire, towns and cities such as Harrogate, Ilkley and York are faring better than they have done in years. Harrogate is now among the best performing areas in the country, with just 7.1 per cent shops vacant in September this year, compared to 10.8 per cent in September 2009.

In the run-up to Christmas, the town has been a hive of activity, with residents and businesses helping raise tens of thousands for its festive lights and shops vying for the prize of best window display.

It is a world away from the boarded-up buildings and pound shops of Dewsbury town centre.

Today, as the last of the Christmas shoppers head home to their families across Yorkshire, business experts are warning of a widening chasm across the region within the north/south divide. This growing economic disparity is backed up by a new survey of the high street undertaken on behalf of the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies and obtained by the Yorkshire Post, on how high streets are coping with the recession.

The blame is scattered widely – from unscrupulous landlords sitting on vacant buildings while they fall into rack and ruin, to internet shopping, parking charges, out of town retail centres and an inability to attract big name retailers. Yet a solution to halt the Yorkshire high street becoming a tale of two towns is harder to find.

Councillor Paul Kane is the Dewsbury Regeneration Board’s chairman and says major projects are now in the pipeline to bring shoppers back to its high street such as transforming the Pioneer Building – a beautiful Victorian landmark that towers over the town centre but has lain derelict for years – applying for £2.5m Heritage Lottery Funding, and forcing property owners to maintain their buildings.

“We do now have a few shops opening again in the town but we don’t seem to be able to attract the big names,” he said. “The vast majority of the time people are going into Leeds or the White Rose shopping centre to spend their money. We want to get local businesses and landowners on board to put something back.

“The Victorians were extremely good at putting wealth back into their towns when they were earning money through the hard work of the people that were living there. We need to foster that philanthropic spirit in businesses as well.

“The divide is far too big within Yorkshire between the rich and the poor. We don’t want to be an exception, we want to be treated the same as everybody else and get the chance to see some improvements.”

It wasn’t, of course, always this way. In Dewsbury’s heyday, department stores such as J&Bs, Bickers and Hodgsons flourished in the town. At Christmas, older residents remember children queuing in their hundreds to see Santa arrive at J&Bs on his sleigh.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, with concerted action, the good times could return.

Plans could see discounted business rates to encourage retailers to take up empty shop premises and closer links built between Kirklees Council with landlords to offer reduced lease terms on empty shop units to enable retailers to open on a temporary basis through a pop-up shop scheme. West Yorkshire development manager Lyndsey Whitaker said: “With better town centre planning and immediate action by Kirklees Council to attract the independent retailers back, we believe things can be turned around.”