On Shields Road in Newcastle, Steve Compton is cutting the hair of a man in his 50s. The atmosphere in Compton’s barber shop is cheerful – and stays cheerful even after one of the customers raises the subject of a recent report by a retail consultancy that labelled Shields Road the “worst high street in Britain”.
The “vitality index”, by London-based Harper Dennis Hobbs, claims 19% of the retail units on Shields Road are vacant, twice the national average.
“Does it look like one in five shops is empty to you?” asks Compton as he snips. “No chance. You just have to walk along to see that. Did they even visit?”
What has really annoyed locals, however, is how the list measures the vitality of a high street. In addition to vacancy rates, the criteria specifically include the proportion of “upmarket” shops, as well as the proportion of pawnbrokers, money lenders and bookmakers.
Critics say this conflates the wealth and social class of a neighbourhood with how good or bad it is.
The report identifies the city of Cambridge as having the UK’s “best” high streets, with expensive shops that “attract aspirational customers with more money being spent”. Conversely, Byker, the Newcastle ward where Shields Road is located, is described as home to a “borderline poverty group” who take “solace in fast food, gambling and alcohol” and whose “day-to-day survival means that they will be less engaged with the wider world”.
“How very dare they say such things?” says Jill Haley, chief executive of Byker Community Trust, which works to maximise access for local people to employment, training, health and educational opportunities.
Haley points to the many awards the local community has won, including the Great Neighbourhood Award in 2018 from the Academy of Urbanism.
“What makes this place is the community spirit,” Haley says. “I’ve been here seven years and I can say I’ve never worked in a place that’s been more thriving.”
Haley has overseen millions of pounds of investment in the community, visits from Prince Harry and the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and award-winning veterans’ projects and housing regeneration campaigns. Newcastle United FC and the Michael Carrick Foundation have also invested in the area.
Nick Kemp, a city councillor, says that while Shields Road does have many discount shops, the people who shop there have been badly wronged by the report.
“It’s wholeheartedly sensationalist,” says Kemp. “Even the ‘low-quality’ retail the report talks about are reflective of government austerity policies, not the local community.”
Kemp argues that any struggles faced by Shields Road are due to the presence of two major supermarkets, Morrisons and Asda, at the end of the high street. Haley also notes the proximity of Shields Road to Newcastle centre.
She says: “The city centre has dispersal orders, so rough sleepers are moved on from the ‘upmarket’ shops because people don’t want to see them, do they? And so they come here.”
Byker community centre hosts Newcastle’s only pay-as-you-feel supermarket, which is stocked with food previously destined for waste. The initiative is part of the Magic Hat Cafe, which also runs a pay-as-you-feel cafe every Friday night.
“We’re a shop and cafe, not a food bank,” says co-founder Jess Miller. “Of course, we’re not alleviating all the other stresses in people’s lives here. But we can help them buy affordable food, which means they avoid being stigmatised with the labels used in that report.”
Roweena Russell, who manages the centre, describes it as a “cross between Phoenix Nights and Shameless”. While she acknowledges the presence of many “value-led” retail outlets on Shields Road, she says community organisations are having a big local impact.
“When the rates are so low, and we’re in an area of deprivation, then companies like BrightHouse [a weekly payment store] will move in,” she says. “But we work to avoid people going to them. We’ll get funding for the white goods people need. Then they can avoid getting into debt. Creativity is the best defence against those headlines.”
“Our new community trust is working hard to think how we best utilise the high street,” says Kemp. He admits it is not an easy job, although he puts this down to “national circumstances” rather than local poverty. The changing nature of city retail is another factor.
“The street has probably lost its sparkle and that won’t come back,” says Ian Thurlbeck, director of Newcastle-based retail property consultancy @retail. But he thinks calling it the worst high street in Britain is misleading, and that the report should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“Even for property professionals it’s not really very helpful,” he says. “We’ve sold units along Shields Road pretty quickly whenever they’ve come on. But historically, Shields Road has always had so many shops that even in good times it’s been difficult to maintain 100% occupancy.”
As for Compton, he’s not going anywhere. “I’ve got customers from all over,” he says. “There’s a customer from York who always gets his hair cut here. I’ve been here 12 years and loved every minute.”
Samantha, one of his hairdressers, agrees: “Just because people don’t have as much money around here doesn’t mean they’re worth less.”