Sarah Todd: How out-of-town retail parks are turning York into a ghost town – and why the rest of the high street should be worried

The new Vangarde shopping park in York - but is it killing off city centre trade?
The new Vangarde shopping park in York - but is it killing off city centre trade?
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RETAIL giants have this week been blaming the internet for the demise of the high street.

Controversial Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley went so far as to tell a Parliamentary select committee that traditional shopping streets are “already dead” and would be extinct by 2030.

is the out of town John Lewis store in York good for the city centre economy?

is the out of town John Lewis store in York good for the city centre economy?

While armchair shopping isn’t innocent, this correspondent disagrees…

It’s easy to blame the worldwide web but if we rewind ten, 20, or even 30 years – to a time before baskets were routinely filled via computer keyboards – it was town planners and councillors who sowed the seeds of the high street’s current demise.

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Rather than tackle city centre hot potatoes like parking, rateable values and transport, many authorities seemed to adopt an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude and the carbuncle of modern retail parks was born. What did they think would happen?

Sports Direct chief executive Mike Ashley addressed MPs this week on the state of the high street.

Sports Direct chief executive Mike Ashley addressed MPs this week on the state of the high street.

York is this family’s nearest city and we’re aware of a whole generation of local youngsters who have never actually been into the centre. They say they have ‘‘been to York shopping’’ when they have actually been at Monks Cross, Clifton Moor and the industrial estate-esque Vangarde Shopping Park. Weekend break visitors swell the numbers in the city centre on a Saturday and Sunday, but whenever we’ve been in recently midweek York is like a ghost town.

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Now, that could be because people are at home – shopping via the internet – or it could be because the parking is free outside the shops on the out-of-town centres. For too long city centre parking has been a rip-off. Yes, it’s deterred motorists but – as a result – it’s driven the shoppers (and their wallets) elsewhere.

The Husband doesn’t “do” shopping, but for some reason he’d been out at Vangarde the other week and had been thrilled to bump into a popular Leeds United football player going into John Lewis.

Surely the store that is never knowingly undersold, along with its neighbour the new mega-sized Marks & Spencer, would have been better placed as jewels in the crown of the city centre?

People would have visited them and then padded the pavements and spread their spend around the city’s other shops and restaurants. It’s not rocket science.

There is a movement that believes the modern trend for moving amenities such as doctors’ surgeries, schools and council offices out of town has been another nail in the coffin of the high street.

Once lost, these everyday essentials are one less reason for the shopping public to come into town.

It sounds like Mike Ashley is singing from the same hymn sheet. He used this week’s Parliamentary hearing to call for more free parking, park and ride schemes, and click and collect systems to entice people on to the high street and which he dramatically described as already “bottom of the swimming pool – dead”.

Others warned that unless there is a radical rethink, towns across the UK will go the same way as some soulless parts of America.

Up to 14 per cent of shops across Britain are empty or boarded up. We’re in an age which has seen the demise of a host of iconic British brands from BHS to Woolworths. 1,772 shops disappeared from Britain’s town centres last year, while more than 50,000 retail jobs have been lost.

We’ve had something similar before. When supermarkets marched into our lives, hundreds of small corner shops, chemists and greengrocers went to the wall. Council taxes and rates should have been reduced immediately to help them have half a chance of weathering the storm. Now is the time to act. Once shops are gone. it’s going to be all-but impossible to get them back.

My 100 year-old grandmother died the other week and her passing has made me reflect on the great changes that took place during her lifetime.

She could remember travelling to school on a pony and trap (only when it was raining mind; otherwise it was a three mile walk) and her shopping trips into York would be bustling affairs, with a real sense of community and passing the time of day with people.

To be fair, there’s usually somebody’s eye to catch – an older lady struggling with a bag maybe – and a nod and a smile to be had in the city centre. But never once has a word been uttered to a stranger out on the retail parks. Everybody is 
focused on themselves. Busy, busy, busy. Eyes down. Not like meandering in the city centre, taking a detour to walk past the minster or look in a special shop’s window.

Christmas shopping in this household never gets done 
until the week before. The 
greedy grabbing of gifts by many since about the end of October just puts this reluctant shopper right off.

It’s maybe corny, but it all seems so materialistic. Hardly anybody seems to make even a token nod to Him Upstairs 
either. If that ship’s sailed, it must surely be worth remembering that behind every small business there is a local family rather than a robot in an internet warehouse or a fat cat retail park CEO…

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine.