Mayor plots path forward for town centre after residents take aim at 'no go area' and kebab shops

Middlesbrough Mayor Chris Cooke has said the council “needs to be more selective” about how it spends public cash in the town centre.

Mr Cooke referenced the loss of the Wired Lobby e-sports gaming outlet, in Captain Cook Square, which received £500,000 in a loan and grant, and which he said “was not working”. It opened in December last year, but was shuttered last month after bailiffs secured its unit following an alleged breach of the terms and conditions of the operator’s lease agreement.

The mayor was speaking at a recent community council meeting in Stainton, Middlesbrough, where some residents present took aim at the state of the town centre.

He also described how the local authority had “offloaded” the vacant House of Fraser building it previously bought to the Middlesbrough Development Corporation headed by Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, which he said had been costing the local taxpayer £100,000 a year while it stood empty. Labour ’s Mr Cooke said: “We cannot just sit on units when we don’t have the money to invest in them properly.”

Some residents at the meeting criticised the town centre which was described as a “no go area” at night with “all the rogues and vagabonds still hanging about”. One resident said: “I never go into Middlesbrough, it is a disgrace. I feel threatened.” Another added: “There is nothing for me there. I don’t want a Turkish barber or a kebab shop.”

There was also criticism of Linthorpe Road and the state of some shop frontages which were described as a “mess”.

Mr Cooke said: “What we are going to do with the town centre is be more selective with less giving out of funds. If a business comes to us and needs a certain level of investment, we need to question whether it is sustainable and any proposed ventures are properly thought out.

“By the end of the year we will have filled the majority of Captain Cook Square. A major retailer I can’t name is also coming back to the town centre and we are starting to get the interest back.

"We are going to lose a Poundland, but equally if your town centre has too many Poundlands and nothing else, it is a bit of an issue.” The mayor said two retailers were rejected by the council recently “because we felt that they did not quite fit”.

Captain Cook Square, in Middlesbrough town centre
Captain Cook Square, in Middlesbrough town centre -Credit:Dan Bolam/Captain Cook Square

Addressing concerns over anti-social behaviour, Mr Cooke said: “After you have involved the police, the wardens, CCTV, the next best thing is that natural surveillance. If you have lots of footfall then the state of the town centre becomes much better and covers some of these issues. We are exploring what we can do to make the town centre feel safer.

“We can’t sit there with empty units waiting for people to feel safer because they also won’t come as there is nothing to do. InflateSpace [a giant indoor inflatable theme park] are moving in, we have [American burger chain] Wendy’s, these are different types of offers to attract families and large groups of people.

“It is bad if you are going as a family somewhere and there are police on a corner. It is a battle and we need to try and do both [enforcement and improve footfall] at the same time.”

The council has been attempting to find a new “niche” by pivoting more towards leisure and food and drink, along with keeping a stable retail base.

Earlier this month its head of economic growth Sam Gilmore said these were markets that were “more robust” in terms of their ability to weather retail storms and offered experiences that could not be delivered on the internet. Mr Gilmore also described how some big name chains that have quit the town were doing similar in other areas more because of trends rather than Middlesbrough itself.

Middlesbrough Council bought Captain Cook Square in 2020 and successfully bid for funds from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund to help transform parts of it from a shopping centre into a leisure hub, the likes of retailers Wilko’s and TJ Hughes having previously fallen by the wayside.