Retailers in what was once Birmingham’s main shopping thoroughfare say plans to extend the Midland Metro could prove the final nail in the coffin for them as they struggle to stay afloat.
They claim Corporation Street, which once boasted several department stores and was the heart of the city centre at the turn of the 20th century, is already on its way to becoming a retailing no man’s land thanks to the opening of the Bullring shopping centre and the pedestrianisation of New Street.
Now they believe the three-year project to extend the Midland Metro between Snow Hill and New Street stations, which will see trams to run down Corporation Street, will seriously damage what is left of trade.
The £127 million joint venture between Centro, Birmingham City Council and several Black Country councils will see Corporation Street permanently closed to traffic and bus stops moved to new locations.
“It poses a threat to anybody’s survival in Corporation Street,” said David Johnson, managing director of Rex Johnson and Sons jewellers on Corporation Street. “Twelve years ago at an exhibition I said if the metro comes down here I’m putting my claim for compensation in because it will devastate Corporation Street.
“Retail Birmingham thinks this is all going to go to plan and we are not going to have any disturbance to our normal day but I’ve been in retailing for 40 years and I can tell you the public doesn’t like shopping on a working site. The traffic stops within the next couple of months and then we will find out.”
The current project is the first phase in the construction of the Midland Metro extension and will run from Snow Hill Station to New Street Station.
The extension will link Birmingham’s two main stations to the Jewellery Quarter and the Black Country, with trams following a route from the existing metro terminus at Snow Hill across a specially built viaduct along Bull Street, Corporation Street and Stephenson Street.
It will serve as a platform for further routes to key locations such as Birmingham Airport and the new HS2 station.
Mr Johnson called for “real help” for retailers, who he feels will lose out financially, rather than just reassurance.
He said Retail Birmingham needed to “earn its money” and retailers would be “struggling like mad” to stay in existence for three years and wants compensation on rent and rates for shopkeepers.
He added: “I am sure that when it is completed it is going to be very nice but the public will be shopping somewhere else for three years – do they come back when it’s up and running? I don’t know and also who is going to survive for three years?
Mr Johnson said stores like his were still reeling from the impact of Bullring’s opening, adding it had “changed footflow in Birmingham”.
“I’d say we have half the footflow and rents didn’t come down,” he added.
“Shoppers are very fickle – once they have moved on they don’t come back.”
Although Mr Johnson said he was optimistic about the eventual outcome if retailers are able to survive, another Corporation Street jeweller was less convinced about the long-term benefits.
Daniel Johnson, managing director of Roberts Jewellers, said: “It is not even going to help us when it’s finished.
"That is the joke of it. If I could see a light at the end of the tunnel it might be okay but they have a plan where they deliver everything to the Bullring.
“Instead of getting people to walk through the city they will sit on the tram and ride straight down to the shopping centre that is the Bullring and New Street. It will avoid any chance we would have had of people walking down the Great Western Arcade or Corporation Street.
“They simply want to gear the whole city up to that end of town. It should be the other way round – they should be trying to promote our side rather than making it worse.
“It is all centred now from the Town Hall to the Bullring and this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Mr Johnson, whose business is one of the longest-serving tenants on Corporation Street, said he shared concerns about disruption during its construction.
He said the work would cause “utter mayhem”, which would discourage pedestrians from the street, which currently sees about 180 buses an hour.
He believes planners have had “total disregard for shopkeepers who are the mainstay of the city”, despite their rates playing a key role for the city centre.
“I would walk away but we are tied into a lease and would have to find someone else – but no one else is going to want to take it on,” he added.
Paul Lamb, who runs Simms Footwear in Great Western Arcade is another retailer concerned about the effect the works and the extension will have on trade. He was also sceptical the extension would prove a stepping stone to enable the metro to eventually extend further afield out of the city.
“At the end of the day rents and rates are just too expensive,” he said. “If the city centre has moved to the Bullring our rents and rates should have dropped but they haven’t. It is one of the reasons there are so many empty shops.”
He added: “At one point they were talking about an underground system so you do get a bit negative and think ‘here we go again’. You wonder whether we will end up seeing it go absolutely nowhere. If this is as far as it goes then I feel it’s a total waste of time, effort and money.”
Both Centro and Retail Birmingham stood by the scheme and said disruption would be kept to a minimum and retailers fully supported during the construction process.
A Centro spokesman said it had been talking to traders along the route for the last 18 months and the “overwhelming majority” were in favour of the project.
He said only a short stretch of the route will be worked on at any one time, leaving most of Corporation Street unobstructed and traffic free, and access to all shops will be maintained.
He said: “They recognise how it can rejuvenate the shopping experience in Corporation Street by offering a cleaner quieter, more attractive environment, mirroring the improvements seen in New Street and High Street following pedestrianisation.
“Yet traders in Corporation Street will benefit further with the metro delivering more than 3.5 million people directly to their shops. The metro will not go to the Bull Ring – it will go to New Street Station which itself is undergoing a £600 million transformation.”
Jonathan Cheetham, chair, Retail Birmingham said: “Retail Birmingham is working closely with Centro and Birmingham City Council during the building of the Midland Metro extension to ensure the city centre remains open for business and we support our retail members within the area.
“The Midland Metro extension will deliver more visitors into the heart of the retail area, with stops on Bull Street, Corporation Street and Stephenson Street, but also includes significant public realm improvements to create a truly world-class walking and shopping experience through our city centre.”