Darlington town centre isn’t ‘dying’, it’s adapting

Despite more and more empty shop units appearing on the high street, we take a look at why there's still plenty of life in Darlington town centre.

Every other week (or so it seems), the Darlington Facebook groups are rife with debates about how Darlington town centre is “becoming a ghost town”, “there’s no decent shops any more”, “the fairground is blocking my view of the indoor market so I didn’t know it was there”, etc.

Whenever the topic of conversation arises, many of those commenting are quick to point the finger at Darlington Borough Council. However, in reality, the blame lies with the town’s residents.

The reason is quite straightforward. Consumers aren’t spending their money on the high street, with more and more opting to do their shopping online or opting to travel to dedicated shopping centres.

Who can blame them? It’s far easier for consumers to go online and order the same product to be delivered to their house for a lower price, than trudging round the town centre trying to find that “must-have” jacket at a higher cost. Similarly, there’s a lot more choice to be had in dedicated shopping centres which are only a short drive away.

The result of consumers spending more and more of their money online or in these dedicated shopping centres and less in the high street has a knock-on effect on the retailers, who can’t afford the costs to upkeep the shopping units.

Some people would argue that Darlington doesn’t have a “good selection of shops”. It’s a straightforward solution on the surface, but which retailer would want to take the risk? Would it stop Darlington residents from travelling to other places or shopping online? Probably not.

This is an issue that doesn’t just apply in Darlington, it’s happening nationwide. Remember Woolworths? Zavvi? JJB Sports? All three brands no longer have a place on the high street, yet still exist in an online capacity.

Woolworths Darlington
Woolworths was one major casualty of the high street. The Darlington store closed in December 2008.

There are some exceptions of course, as anyone who regularly shops at Primark would know, but there’s no denying the small number of independent retailers on the high street, and that ones that are still going deserve huge credit for coping and adapting to the modern day market.

While empty shop units are popping up around Darlington town centre, there certainly isn’t a shortage of coffee shops, restaurant and bars, with the likes of Mangobean, Nando’s and Number One Bar all opening within recent years.

The rise in coffee shops, restaurants and bars clearly shows that Darlington residents are using the town centre as more of a social ground, whether it’s catching up with a friend over a coffee, going for a bite to eat or celebrating a birthday with a couple of drinks. The best example of this is the Feethams Leisure development, which is home to a coffee shop, a hotel and five restaurants, including big names such as Nando’s and Bella Italia.

Yes, it’s a huge shame that shops aren’t as prominent in Darlington town centre anymore. Yes, more could be done to promote shopping in the town centre (we’ll save the car parking discussion for another feature). But the shopping revival would require a change in people’s shopping habits, and that can only happen if the people of Darlington actively do their shopping on the high street.

So next time you have the urge to post a Facebook comment or tweet about how Darlington town centre is “dying”, just think about where you made your recent purchases. Could you have bought them from a shop in the town centre? And also think about the sheer amount the town has to offer in terms of dining out, nightlife, live music and so on. There’s still a lot of life in Darlington town centre, even if there isn’t a lot of shops.