M&S blow as Hull fights to re-invent high street

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THE mournful tune from the Romanian street busker’s accordion sets the right mood music for Whitefriargate – once Hull’s premier shopping street, now with more than a dozen empty shops and the devastating prospect of losing its anchor Marks & Spencer store.

But go round the corner and you’ll find the thriving oasis that is the indoor market, now a haven for foodies, and where you can get the best coffee in town.

Steve Mathie, owner of Spin It Records, in Trinity indoor market, Hull.

Steve Mathie, owner of Spin It Records, in Trinity indoor market, Hull.

Hull city centre is in the throes of reinventing itself, with changes on the high street coinciding with rapidly expanding numbers of people living there – 800 more in the last three years alone.

What the final picture will be is anyone’s guess.

Steve Mathie, of Spin It Records, has been selling vinyl long enough to see it go out of fashion and come back in.

Now he believes is a good time for the independents.

“They said vinyl was dead and it wasn’t. People have realised there’s more to it than pushing a button. The same with shops.

“The high street will survive, it will get smaller – to me the big department stores are dead and gone. There will be more independents and more experiences – shopping and entertainment mixed together.”

Just before Christmas, it looked as if Hull would lose its landmark House of Fraser store, until the landlord, Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley and Hull Council came to a deal.

In its next incarnation it looks as if there will be some retail use downstairs still, but the upstairs will be converted, possibly into a mix of housing and leisure.

Hull Council is also negotiating hard to keep its M&S store – one of 17 earmarked for closure – in the city.

A new home could be the £130m public-private Albion Square development, which will see two derelict department stores knocked down, and 182,000 sq ft of retail space created, along with 278 homes and a new home for the city’s Ice Arena.

Council leader Steve Brady said: “We believe it is a great location. We will do everything in our power to prove that to them.”

But with Albion Square still far from fruition, one member of staff remarked: “They’d better act fast.”

Although the inner heart of the city is much improved, it is not necessarily what shoppers focus on.

One shopper from Driffield, who likes an unusual pair of trainers, complains that the shops are too generic.

“A lot of them are selling stuff you can easily get anywhere online,” he says.

And optometrist Greg Bailey, of Aspecs Opticians in Savile Street, insists he has seen no gain from the upgrade, with his figures down around a third on 2012-2013.

He said: “We’ve been hit by a perfect storm – the internet, Brexit, and the fact the city centre had this public realm work which put people off coming. From our perspective there hasn’t been a gain there has been a loss.

“I don’t blame Amazon. I blame the tax laws put in place by successive governments.”