critique of the built environment of Stoke-on-Trent
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High Street Blues
The plight of the nation’s town centres and traditional High Streets made headlines recently with the publication of a report by the Local Data Company.
Some of the statistics
produced by the Local Data Company paint a very bleak picture: one in seven shops on our High Streets are vacant, and in the more depressed locations, the vacancy rate is one in three. The worst hit small town is Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, whilst the worst performing large town centres are Blackpool and Stockport respectively, with vacancy rates over 25%, whilst of medium sized town centres, both Dudley and West Bromwich have vacancy rates of almost 30%.
Woolworths in Campbell Place, Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent - 28 December 2008
The reason for the decline of our High Streets and town centres is a complex cocktail of changing consumer habits, planning policies and poor town centre management by local authorities.
For more than twenty years, shoppers have deserted High Streets for out-of-town malls and megastores very often only accessible by car, with planning policies often supporting and encouraging such development, whilst the Internet Generation often prefer to shop on-line from the comfort of their homes, avoiding the declining and often hostile environment that many town centres present these days.
The current economic crisis has only exacerbated matters, with traditional High Street retailers such as Woolworths disappearing forever.
year, the Government appointed Retail Guru Mary Portas to prepare a plan to deliver the resurgence of Britain’s town centres and High Streets: the Local Data Company report highlights just how deep rooted the problems are, and the enormity of the task ahead. Portas’ report is due anytime; the Nation’s Shopkeepers wait with baited breath.
Those challenges are illustrated perfectly by the experiences of Tunstall and Biddulph.
Confidence in the town plummeted, and fell even further when Grindley’s eventually closed their doors.
1990s, plans began to emerge to deal with Tunstall’s degeneration: planning policies were put in place to ‘expand the town centre’ to the east of the High Street (or to build an out-of-town retail park in Plain English), allocating sites such as the aforementioned Grindley’s and Alexandra Pottery sites, and the former Unicorn Pottery site for retail and leisure-led mixed-use development; the City Council secured cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund to renovate the market, and the Single Regeneration Fund for town centre improvements, and moved forward with plans to build the Tunstall Northern By-Pass – not recognising the conflict and irony in pressing on to construct a road designed to relieve congestion in Tunstall whilst encouraging new development adjacent to the town centre which would attract more traffic onto the area’s roads…
No doubt spurred on by the ‘success’ of Festival Park, this led to the City Council to encourage and approve the development of the Asda superstore off Woodland Street, and Dransfield Property’s monstrous and soulless out-of-town sheds – home to the usual out-of-town suspects such as Matalan, Next and Pizza Hut – which incredibly managed to win an award for ‘innovative design’ from the North Staffordshire Regeneration Zone (presumably because it had nothing to compete with…).
The demolition of the Alexandra Pottery was a particular sad loss, with the developer paying lip service to the history of the site by christening their appalling scheme Jasper Square and Alexandra Park, and providing a piece of public art – a huge
stainless steel sculpture of a shard of pottery discovered whilst turning an historic site to dust.
The Asda and Dransfield schemes have thrived: the stores teem with shoppers, and local roads struggle to cope with traffic, despite the subsequent opening of the Tunstall Northern By-Pass…but as Trickle Down Theory has been proven to be flawed in respect of the economy, so it has also been proven to be flawed in respect of the new developments in Tunstall drawing people onto the High Street: vacancy rates are through the roof, and the majority of High Street units that are occupied are depressing and unattractive, with the High Street’s offer now seemingly artery-hardening food and snacks, cheap booze, cigarettes, and second-hand goods, whilst the town centre environment has once again spiralled back to the bleak and grim days of the late 1980s.
The second-to-last nail in the coffin of the out-of-town apologists’ arguments was hammered home just recently when Boots left their traditional High Street location in Tunstall to join the Alexandra Park bandwagon. The one ‘name’ left on Tunstall High Street is Burtons, and it is surely just a matter of time before they also jump ship, which would surely provide the final nail in the coffin of the out-of-town vs. town centre argument argument.
The one thing that defines Tunstall’s decline
though is the condition of Tunstall Town Hall: it is an absolute disgrace, and has been for many years. The development of Jasper Square and Alexandra Park presented a great opportunity to find new sustainable uses for the Town Hall, and indeed, it could’ve been the centrepiece of a thoughtful, well planned and well designed development, providing a clear link to the High Street and Tower Square, and the opportunity for people to flow freely between the new development and the town’s traditional heart. Instead, the opportunity was either not recognised or ignored, and this beautiful building has been allowed to rot. The state of Tunstall Town Hall presents an awful image, and surely deters private investment in the High Street and wider town centre: if the local authority is not willing to properly invest, what encouragement is that to the private sector?
Biddulph, Staffordshire Moorlands District Council also got hooked by out-of-town development, but with a special ‘town centre’ spin.
For many years local residents and politicians had campaigned for the construction of a by-pass around Biddulph to at least relieve the congestion on the High Street, and thus help to improve the town centre environment. However, despite the many calls for the new road to be built, and land being reserved within local plans for the purpose of the by-pass, it wasn’t until the election of the Labour Government in 1997 that things started to gather pace with the plans, with newly elected MP Charlotte Atkins fighting hard for the road to be prioritised by the Department of Transport, County Council and their partners.
But the centrepiece of the AAP, and the town’s regeneration programme, was a new supermarket-led development off between the High Street and the new By-Pass. Sainsbury’s were appointed to deliver the project, which was portrayed as being the answer to Biddulph’s prayers. Sainsbury’s developed their proposals, which was to include a new, large supermarket – partly on stilts to enable the provision of undercroft car parking, and with an entrance onto the High Street – a series of other retail units along the High Street, and a new block of office space and apartments fronting the By-Pass on the corner of Wharf Road. The scheme would also enable the delivery of a new ‘transport interchange’, and fund a new one-way system and ‘public realm improvements’.
The scheme was subsequently granted planning permission, and the store opened its doors for business in late 2010. However, the scheme has not been developed and delivered as originally envisaged: the proposed new block of offices and apartments has not been built – Sainsbury’s have argued that it was unviable in the current economic climate, an argument that is difficult to disagree with – the transport interchange is simply a couple of new bus stops and a small shed with some toilets that nobody uses; the public realm improvements are simply directly adjacent to the Sainsbury’s store; the new one-way system has proved confusing and frustrating to locals and visitors alike, and has largely benefited Sainsbury’s, making it easier for customers to arrive and depart from the car park of their new store. The new retail units along the High Street also remain vacant.
A few weeks after Sainsbury’s opened, the local newspaper – the Biddulph Chronicle – ran a headline story that the local Chamber of Trade had reported that trade on the High Street had dropped by 33% since the new store had started trading, and that some businesses were finding it very hard to compete. In a delicious irony, on the letters page of the same week’s edition of the paper was a lengthy screed from Councillor Andrew Hart – Portfolio Holder for Regeneration and Housing at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council – expressing how proud he was to have played a key role in bringing Sainsbury’s to Biddulph. If you were being mischievous, you could possibly turn that on its head and declare that Councillor Hart is really pleased to have further contributed to speeding up the slow death of Biddulph High Street…
In the months that have followed, Biddulph High Street has declined further: Barclays Bank has closed its Biddulph branch, and Lloyds TSB have announced that they are to leave the town; the former Co-op store has closed and reopened three times; one of the highest profile local independents – florist ‘Darling Buds of Biddulph’ – has closed its doors, unable to compete with Sainsbury’s.
The town centre environment is heading back into decline, with much of the new paving damaged or replaced with patches of black top, with traffic congestion back on the rise, probably due the confusing nature of the new one-way system. The predominant function of the High Street is now to provide take away food, a place for locals to get their grooming needs addressed before going on to get inebriated, followed by more take away food.
You would think that Staffordshire Moorlands District Council may have learned lessons from their experiences on delivering regeneration in Biddulph. However, you would be wrong. Over in Leek, the Council are hoping that the building of a new supermarket-led development on the Churnet Works site will transform the fortunes of Leek Town Centre, yet this truly is an out-of-town site. Once again, Sainsbury’s are the supermarket chain of choice, and a key element of their proposals is the implementation of a controversial one-way system in the town centre, part of which would see the destruction of the setting of the Nicholson War Memorial.
These are the challenges facing just three of North Staffordshire’s eleven principle town centres. So does North Staffordshire have too many town centres? Is it a case that some should simply be abandoned, with the local authority managing their decline? The answer in both cases should be a resounding “no”.
However, the local authorities’ response to these issues has either been poor or non-existent. The exception has been in Burslem. Following the closure of Royal Doulton’s works on Nile Street, there was much angst amongst local residents and councillors at the Mother Town’s decline, and the impact that the closure of Royal Doulton would have. Led by local MP Joan Walley, the Burslem Regeneration Company was formed to help formulate a strategy for Burslem. Development opportunities in the heart of the town centre were relatively constrained due to the historic nature of the town and its tightly drawn Conservation Area boundaries. However, the town’s heritage assets were identified as being key to the town’s future, and a masterplan was prepared to guide the future development of the town, and formed the basis of bids to draw in funding from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. The other key element of the strategy was to introduce new uses into the town centre, and bring people back to Burslem. New housing was planned around the edge of the town centre (for example the new development on the former Sadler’s site off Greenhead Street), and Queen Street was to become a focus for creative businesses.
Whilst Burslem still has problems to tackle, numerous projects have been delivered with some notable successes: Burslem School of Art has been renovated, creating studio and office space for artists and small businesses. Midland Heart has delivered two live/work schemes adjacent to the School of Art, providing high-quality business and residential accommodation. Two Townscape Heritage Initiatives have been delivered, renovating an impressive number of historic buildings throughout the town, helping to attract new businesses, and helping the viability of existing businesses.
Burslem is heading in the right direction, but there is still much to do. It has been recognised that the town’s heritage and the introduction of new uses are the vital ingredients in rejuvenating the town centre. What needs to happen next is for the City Council and its partners to be bolder. It has to be recognised that there is still too much space aimed at retail uses; the retail core of the town needs to be consolidated, probably around St John’s Square and Queen Street, away from the heavy traffic that passes through the town. These areas could be utilised to build on the town’s burgeoning evening economy, with the introduction of further bars and restaurants. Further housing development is needed in and around the town (difficult in the current climate) to bring more people back to Burslem. And most importantly, continued support, management and leadership is required from the City Council.
This is the sort of approach that is being pursued and is working elsewhere. Altrincham is an attractive market town on the edge of the Cheshire Plain, around twelve miles from the centre of Manchester, and is the principal town centre of the Borough of Trafford. When the Local Data Company launched their town centre’s report in 2010, Altrincham was the worst performing medium sized town centre in the country, with a vacancy rate of over 30%, with its decline attributed to its close proximity to Manchester City Centre and the Trafford Centre, the perceived ‘higher-quality offer’ of nearby towns such as Wilmslow, and local competition such as the Altrincham Retail Park.
This was shocking news to the local authority, who went on to form a group with local businesses and residents – Altrincham Forward – to devise a strategy to help pull the town centre from its downward spiral. The new strategy has identified a number of new development opportunities that will deliver significant change over the coming years. However, they also recognised the importance of the existing fabric of the town centre, and the public realm, as the ‘glue’ that will integrate these new developments into the town, and hold it all together. They have also examined good practice from elsewhere, and are actively promoting the introduction of new uses to the town centre.
There is evidence that their new strategy is having a positive effect: in the past twelve months, vacancy rates have started to fall, and are now below 30% according to the Local Data Company, and Altrincham is no longer the worst performing town centre of its size – it is still in the top ten, highlighting that there is still much to do in Altrincham – but the positive progress over the past year demonstrates the potential,
The dubious honour of worst performing
large town centre goes – jointly with Blackpool – to one of Altrincham’s near neighbours, Stockport. However, in the case of Stockport, the vacancy statistics mask the endeavours and positive work – and results – of the local authority. Stockport MBC recognises that they have had problems with their main town centre, but have put in place a comprehensive strategy to turn the place around. Part of this strategy has been to recognise that again, there is an oversupply of space designated for traditional town centre uses, and space that is unsuitable for modern requirements. They are also putting their money where their mouth is, investing in the acquisition of key sites in order to control and drive forward new development, whilst introducing new uses in and around the town centre’s historic core, through the creation of a new residential community in and around the Hillgate neighbourhood, utilising a number of historic buildings and sites. This has attracted more than £10million of investment from both the public and private sector, and has been successful to date in attracting new economically active residents into the area. The local authority is looking to continue this strategy, and I would guess that by the time the Local Data Company issues its next report on the state of the nation’s town centres, Stockport will mirror the progress made over in Altrincham, with vacancy rates falling, and new investment on the rise.
However, the most important aspect is the development of a long-term vision for the place. This isn’t easy, particularly where there is real pressure to deliver early, visible results, but that is where a local authority has to be strong, and bold. Grant schemes can help to provide early visible results, particularly in historic areas. It is recognised that in the era of austerity, attracting external public sector funding will be difficult.
However, there is nothing preventing local authorities themselves from funding such schemes, and is a way of demonstrating positive leadership, and a relatively quick and easy way of attracting private sector investment.
So what will the future hold for our town centres?
The City Council has already demonstrated a positive model for change in Burslem. This is clearly an approach that could – and perhaps should – be replicated in Tunstall, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton. Our Six Towns should all be a focus for attention, after all we known as the ‘Six Towns’.
And the role of another layer of democracy for the city shouldn’t be discounted either: Alan Gerrard is leading calls for the creation of a Town Council for Fenton. This could be something to be explored for each of the Six Towns, with the new Councils setting the vision for their town centres, and providing grass roots leadership towards implementation of their vision.
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The Regeneration Game - Stoke-on-Trent needs to reconcile itself with its past before it can renew.