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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wolverhampton City Centre 2050?

Our town centres – what are they are for?

Fast forward to 2050 and speculate on what a typical British town centre might look like.

You may have two scenarios. At worst an empty centre in search of a suburb. The Mary Portas Report will have been forgotten. We will have a landscape of charity stores, anything for £10 shops, pawn and betting outlets. The retail chains have gone. This is a feral landscape avoided by many fearful to enter. People visit once or twice a month. A business as usual model.

On the other hand a plausible alternative. There will be more housing for those living alone and who may have found house purchase difficult. Open space which was blighted and derelict has been turned back to recreational and ecological use. There will be more cultural attractions. Energy costs have become prohibitive and an ageing or indebted population finds public transport attractive. In spite of some inward investments, the recession may have been longer and deeper than anticipated – an opportunity for those without a job to start some niche-market enterprises. People visit regularly - it is an event to be enjoyed.

If this sounds fanciful, scan the results of a recent town centre 2012 survey by Local Data Company. Nearly a third of city centre shops are closed e.g. Stockport 30% and Wolverhampton 27.3% Sunderland, Stockton, Blackpool, Stoke, Nottingham, Walsall and Grimsby add to the tale of woe.

In the midst of a recession, it is tempting to see this as a short-term phenomenon. The reality is that we visit out-of-town centres or the Internet. City centres face a structural problem now. An acute short-term condition has turned chronic.

Coal, steel, textiles, shipbuilding and other industries withered away. The same processes of decline are now hitting the urbanscape. Even offices are on the wane. It has come as a shock and we flounder for solutions.

The town centre is being hollowed out. It is a doughnut. We need to start creating new paradigms for the centre. We need to rethink how town centre land is owned, rented and used. The renewal of commercial leases may see the exodus from the centre turn into a flood.

However much we improve parking, widening ring roads and improving public transport, the key question remains: what are people coming in for? Answer that one and the land use solutions can be framed. Currently, we seem to be addressing symptoms of decline rather that the causes.

Do we engage in cosmetic improvements to street furniture hoping to get over the short-term difficulty? To take a quote from Charles Dickens’ Mr McCawber are we placing our faith in “Something will turn up”?

The Local Data survey noted that southern towns i.e. Salisbury, Exeter and Cambridge do not seem to be having the same level of retail flight - single digit emptiness. The recession may be having less impact. It may also be that these semi-rural towns already have a centre more balanced to meet the changing patterns of shopping decline.

In medieval and industrial revolution times we had a pretty good idea of what town centres were for. We have not yet worked out their purpose in the 21st century.

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