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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What are town centres for? How will Wolverhampton respond to Mary Portas' report on retailing?

A visitor from Pluto would wonder what a British shopping centre was about and what it said of the Earthlings.

It would think that central to our lifestyle was: betting, buying things for a pound, addiction to coffee or swapping our old clothes. Empty shops with graphic designs outside, to give the impression of activity inside, would be an interesting concept to explain away.

Such is the context of Mary Portas’ report on the state of the high street. Low prices, convenience and easy access for shoppers and deliveries alike, enabled the retail park to slaughter its older relative. The town centre will never compete and so it has to find a new role.

There may be glimmers of optimism for a retro town centre. Retail parks do not breathe community spirit and their clonal architecture has all of the ambience of aircraft hangars. These are not places in which to dwell or develop relationships and a sense of belonging.

An opportunity awaits for the town centre if it could reconnect with some of the benign characteristics of earlier centuries. Street markets with their hustle and bustle have a vitality and sense of occasion missing from sanitised multiple chains. Now is the time to reclaim them.

We had a central market in Wolverhampton going back to medieval times. In the 1970s it was demolished and relocated to the fringes of the town centre to make way for council offices. Administrative towers do not have the vitality of a street market and other such decisions cumulatively knocked the heart out of a centre.

We live in little boxes in the suburbs, but in the centre there are no boxes at all. The residential population has been squeezed out and there is no-one to support local convenience shops and cafes. The continental café culture is largely-based on a residential central population living in flats above offices and shops. Now is the time to reconfigure these blighted brown field sites.

Even today, there can be a sense of occasion when visiting a town centre with a wide base of cultural and entertainment attractions. Even better, if shops are encouraged that meet niche markets. Basically, we need to make town centres interesting and accessible.

Now is the time to reassess the benign features of earlier town centres where business, retail, culture and residence supported each other. We need public transportation systems that work and parking policies which do not discourage visitors. Above all, we want a regulatory and planning climate so that entrepreneurs can try out their startup businesses with a reasonable chance of success.

Quite simply, the critical question for councils and government is a basic one. What are town centres for?