David Whipp, chairman of Penrith Town Council and town mayor
Concerns have been raised after it emerged more than half the units in a new shopping complex remain empty – more than two years after it was opened.
Penrith’s mayor, David Whipp, is so concerned about the deserted state of New Squares he wants a meeting with Eden council and Sainsbury’s, the developer of the site.
Sainsbury’s claims 12 out of 20 units are empty but Mr Whipp said it depended on how you divide up the space. If counted individually rather than grouped together in shops, Mr Whipp said around 70 per cent of the units are still empty.
He wants to do something about it.
He is hoping to convene a meeting next month to find out why so many shops in the development, which was finished in June 2013, are still empty.
Mr Whipp said: “I’m in the process of arranging a meeting with Sainsbury’s and the district council, to sit down and actually thrash out why it is that it’s so long since one of the units was let in there.”
The last business to move into New Squares was O2 on February 14 this year. However, Mr Whipp does not think O2 counts because it moved from Middlegate and was not a new business to the town. The last new business prior to that was Sports Direct, which moved into New Squares 17 months ago.
Mr Whipp said: “I don’t for one minute think that there’s an easy solution, but there must be a solution. The main thrust of my argument is that shops are changing hands around the town all the time.
“We have got one or two empty shops on the high street but they don’t stay empty for very long. They are usually taken up by somebody else.
“Why would that not be the case in New Squares?”
National chains have shown increasing interest in Penrith recently: Marks & Spencer is due to open a food hall in the former Co-op store on King Street; and T J Morris Ltd, the parent company of Home Bargains, has applied to the council to convert the former Wickes store on Ullswater Road into its latest discount outlet.
Construction has also started on the controversial 60-bedroom Premier Inn at Penrith New Squares.
Despite opposition from existing hotel and B&B operators who said the new budget chain hotel would harm their trade, 15 councillors voted for the plans, with 14 against and three abstaining. Sainsbury’s, which owns Premier Inn, also wanted to build a filling station but those plans were rejected.
A spokesman for Eden council said the interest of Marks & Spencer and Premier Inn shows confidence in the local economy. As landlord of New Squares development, Eden council receives rent from Sainsbury’s whether or not the shops are empty.
A spokesman said the council was working with Sainsbury’s, but that the supermarket has the responsibility for leasing the retail units.
He added: “Sainsbury’s take a market-led approach to the leasing of these units and are offering incentives to attract companies to the development.
“Local agents Carigiet Cowen are retained to help market these units to interested parties.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “We’re continuing to discuss opportunities with a number of interested businesses, so that we can improve the range and choice of shops for local people.”