Sutton locals say a department store will attract shoppers back to the town centre, despite it having the highest percentage of empty shops of the borough’s seven high streets.

Sutton Council has big plans to improve the town centre and in 2021 bought the St Nicholas shopping centre for £26 million.

But a Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that in 2021, of the 385 units in the town centre, 63 or 16 per cent were standing empty.

The vacancy rate was down from 18 per cent in the previous year, which could be due to the impact of the pandemic.

Of the empty buildings, shops had a worse vacancy rate of 18 per cent compared to leisure venues, which had a rate of 12 per cent. 

The latest figures show the town centre is in a worse state than pre-pandemic in 2019, when there was a 13 per cent vacancy rate.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service spoke to shoppers on a sunny afternoon about what they think should be done to improve the town centre.

Your Local Guardian: Kate Irwin and son George in Sutton town centre (photo: Tara O'Connor)Kate Irwin and son George in Sutton town centre (photo: Tara O'Connor)

Kate Irwin, who was shopping with her son, said: “We are really local, but we don’t come very often.

"We shop online. 

"It is really, really sad seeing everything closed down, I used to spend my teenage years in Topshop with my friends.”

Kate said she would like to see a department store in the town centre, adding: “That would probably encourage me to come back.”

While nine-year-old George said he would want to see “anything sporty” filling empty shops in he town centre.

But friends Dee Reeves and Margaret Joyce, who are both retired, said they enjoy coming down to the town centre to do a bit of shopping. 

Dee said: “I think Sutton has done very well, it is nice to walk up and down the High Street.”

Margaret said she doesn’t like online shopping and prefers to come in person.

She said: “It is nice to get out and meet people. I don’t do online, you can’t beat seeing something in person.”

The pair didn’t know that Sutton Council has bought the St Nicholas Centre and hoped it would mean a department store could return to the town.

Jason Adam, 36, who has worked at Gallery Gifts on the High Street for 10 years, thought rent should be reduced to fill empty shops.

Your Local Guardian: Jason Adam works at Gallery Gifts in Sutton High Street (photo: Tara O'Connor)Jason Adam works at Gallery Gifts in Sutton High Street (photo: Tara O'Connor)

He said: “Quite a few places in the centre have closed down but down the road there have been some new ones open. 

"I would like to see some of the empty shops reopened, but I hear the rents are really high. If they can somehow lower that it can get it buzzing again.”

While Giorgio Podesta, who has managed clothing shop The Projekt Store for 13 years, said business was good with more people working from home.

He said: "I think [the council is] going the right way about it with the promise of various shops and food places, we just need more of it.

"We could do with cheaper rents and rates, that is key to attracting more businesses.

“Since we reopened after Covid we have gone back to normal, if not busier, that’s due to young professionals moving into Sutton.

"We are seeing younger people who have moved from places like Shoreditch, Balham and Hackney, and we are more their kind of shop.

“With working from home, we are busier at lunchtime.

"People are getting out the house to go down to the shops rather than working up town and going to Carnaby Street.”

Sutton Council’s plans for the St Nicholas Centre have still not been announced.

When it was bought in August 2021, council leader Ruth Dombey said: “The purchase offers us an opportunity to ensure the future vitality of our High Street.

"As the long leaseholder, we will have much greater control and influence over a key asset in our borough and can ensure that any future development is in keeping with our vision for the town centre.”