The Observer’s take on the regeneration of Britain’s shopping streets | Editorial Observer
In the past, the leaders of British cities had difficulty imagining a future for their centers which was not commercial and more commercial. In Hastings, a shopping center has been built on a picturesque county cricket ground. In Hull, attractive docks have been filled in. Developers and chain stores were courted, often to the detriment of independent businesses. City life was conceived as shopping and nothing else.
Now those same malls and neighborhoods have become a handicap. Covid accelerated a decline that was already evident, in large part thanks to the rise in online shopping.
They go in the same direction as the disused factories and warehouses of the former industrial zones, with the difference that they threaten to devastate the historic heart of the cities in which they are located. It has been clear for some time that we have to imagine different futures for these places.
All of this makes Stockton-on-Tees an encouraging example. Here, the town hall has endeavored to put at its center uses that are not simple consumption: events, independent business, shows, refurbished art deco theater. It is also 1970s Castlegate shopping center demolition project and replace it with a park, which will open a connection between the city’s large main street and its once neglected river.
Rather than seeking to make every available square meter profitable, it is a question of promoting a friendly and diversified public life, qualities which have always been fundamental in the city center and which could be more than ever appreciated in the aftermath of the Covid.
The old preoccupation with retail not only lost its business logic, but also brought about a limited idea of human existence: it implied that you could only be a fully engaged citizen when you were shopping for things.
The thinking behind Stockton’s experiment is more generous. He deserves to be successful, both for himself and for the lead he can give to other shopping streets. Not that its model can be exactly reproduced: each city center being distinctive and different, with its own strengths and challenges, it will require different responses.
What they will all need is leadership from their local authorities. They will inevitably also need funding. It will never be a business proposition to buy an old mall, tear it down and replace it with a park that requires ongoing maintenance costs.
Such leadership, unfortunately, is made more difficult by the government’s grand idea of renewing main streets, which is to deregulate planning so that stores can be converted piecemeal into residential units. Yet Stockton’s transformation, though led by the city’s labor council, is supported by the government’s Future High Streets Fund and the Tees Valley Conservative-led Combined Authority.
These issues can and should transcend party politics and the dogma of deregulation. The alternative is a potentially endless degradation of city centers and with it loss of quality of life and a waste of human and physical resources. The decline of large-scale retailing, if well managed, could make shopping streets better places than before.