Without much consultation, one dark morning, the bulldozers moved in. The building and the streets around it were quickly destroyed. Gone was the Gas Board Club, the Quaker Meeting House and Rowntrees Department Store. York Place, once the abode of niche shops, became a thoroughfare for buses. The heart of the town had been ripped out, its beauty destroyed and in its place a vast, moronic, brick, shopping centre, lifeless, soulless and from its opening destined to fail.
Within its halls, shops have come and gone. Its modern, shiny walls are as uninviting today as they were when it was first built. There is nothing good about it at all. It is the kind of building that sucks the life from you. The Brunswick Centre is not on its own. Most towns in the county have one exactly the same, built on the ghosts of thriving streets of houses and small shops, demolished for the sake of so-called modernisation.
As thousands and thousands of shops close every year, perhaps now is the time to change the way we look at these in town shopping centres. More and more people are buying online, pushed up by the pandemic and lockdown. It is a situation that some business analysts say we will not recover from. The fate of the town centre mall is now sealed for good.
The question is, what do you do with a monstrous building built specifically for chain stores and large fashion outlets? The answer is simple – pull them down. Like the buildings they replaced, they should suffer that fate. In their place, there is now the opportunity to do something exciting. I believe that town centres should be returned to their 1920s grandeur. Where once stood Debenhams, should become a street of small shops mixed with flats, houses, trees and open spaces. It would not be impossible to create a new landscape of eye-pleasing, Georgian-styled architecture where people could meet, shop and eat in beautiful surroundings.
I have never been able to comprehend why planners and architects believed that the gruesome town centre shopping malls were pleasing to the eye. Most of them are ugly, bland and depressing. They are products created in the minds of men for financial gain, warehouses of greed that are now charnel grounds of bankruptcy. Data shows that around 68 shops close every day. High business rates, a change in shopping attitudes and the pandemic are all destroying our towns. A walk down any high street is the same. Shuttered shops, closing down sales and empty buildings meet the eye. Something has to be done.
The Build Back Better report, put together by an expert team led by straight-talking Bill Grimsey, said the pandemic had accelerated the shrinking of town centre retail. It calls for councils to be given greater powers to fight back and change town centres, adding that local leadership, fewer cars, and more green and open spaces are needed.
Stockton Council has been at the forefront of this and work is afoot to pull down the grim Castlegate Shopping Centre and a bold plan put forward to build a tree-filled park surrounded by shops, cafes and offices. I wonder how many other councils would be as daring as Stockton. It seems that council leaders like to play safe, trying to pour new wine into old wine skins – something that never works. It is as if they hark back to the days when big shops paid big rates to fund council spending. Those days are over.
The retail sector accounts for just five per cent of GDP and yet pays 25 per cent of business rates. That cannot be maintained in a market where increasing amounts of shopping is being done online.
It can only be that the way forward for our town centres is for them to change significantly. They can no longer be seen as a place just for shopping. In a return to the past, they have to become activity-based, gathering centres for the community. In other words, become what they were in the past when communities were stronger and people knew each other.
Now is the time to grab the keys of the bulldozer and tear down the shopping centres and build beautiful streets where people can live, meet under the canopy of trees, listen to music, shop and drink coffee with friends. Sadly, I don’t believe my local council has the courage or foresight to do it.
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