Friday, 12 March 2021

Home on the High Street

When it opened in the mid-80s, the branch of Sainsbury’s on Warren Street in the centre of Stockport, along with the ASDA directly opposite, was the first large, modern supermarket in the town. However, times change, and it closed in January of this year. Plans have now been lodged to use the 3½-acre site to construct 550 new homes.

Residential development is often viewed as a way of revitalising town centres, but in practice it doesn’t really work that way. Town centres developed into busy, bustling places not because a lot of people lived there, but because they acted as retail, employment, administrative, service and entertainment hubs for a wide surrounding area. These activities had a multiplier function, with each encouraging the others, and all providing business for hospitality. How many people actually lived within the town centre was largely irrelevant. While there may be thirty thousand people living in Manchester City Centre now, when thirty years ago there were only a few hundred, that is still only the population that would support the couple of dozen pubs in a typical medium-sized market town, and in terms of the centre’s overall pub trade is a drop in the ocean. The city centre has a thriving night-time economy because people travel in from a wide radius all around.

Being conveniently located for a large number of homes is no guarantee of success, and indeed one of the most typical patterns of pub closure is of stand-alone pubs in the midst of residential areas, or next to local shopping parades, which will often be the only pub within convenient walking distance for a large number of people. Going directly to the pub from home in the evenings is a far less typical pattern of pubgoing than is often imagined, and pubs themselves often seem to form clusters that feed off one another. The same is true of villages, where large housing developments in recent years haven’t provided any shot in the arm for their local pubs. Turning a town centre into what is basically a housing estate is likely to have a similar lack of impact.

It’s generally accepted that there is a severe shortage of housing nationwide, and therefore the redevelopment of land no longer needed for retail has to be welcomed. However, it’s questionable whether schemes of this kind are actually providing the kind of homes people want. Most people, especially those with families, aspire to live in self-contained houses with gardens, not in cramped town-centre flats. In the 1960s, there were high hopes for new tower blocks and deck access flats, but in the long term they often proved socially disastrous, and many have now been demolished. You do have to wonder whether developments such as that proposed for Stockport are in effect creating the slums of the future.

Obviously a lot of retail activity has now migrated to the Internet, accelerated by the lengthy closures during the lockdowns of the past year. Realistically, little of this is ever coming back, and so the retail function of town centres is going to be diminished. If land is no longer needed for shops, or indeed offices, it makes sense to redevelop it for housing. But, rather than being a shot in the arm for town centre economies, it is a symbol of their decline.

This does not mean that there is no future for town centres. I wrote here about the challenges for the revitalisation of central Stockport. Humans are social creatures and don’t want to spend all their time cooped up in their houses. However, town centres need to concentrate on those activities where physical presence is important or essential and that can’t be done remotely. And two of the most important elements that fit that definition are entertainment and hospitality.

15 comments:

  1. "If land is no longer needed for shops, or indeed offices, it makes sense to redevelop it for housing. "
    I'm not so sure about that. Being the contrarian that I am, I'd rather that landowner subsidies were abolished, customs and quota barriers removed and agricultural land no longer needed in the UK for agriculture was developed for housing.
    Land that was once shops can become urban green space.
    Interesting on Manchester City Centre though - massive population growth, which sustains pubs to a degree but not much.

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    1. I didn't want to muddy the waters by straying on to wider issues of housing policy, but I'd agree that we're not going to solve the housing crisis and make housing more affordable again without a significant relaxation of the Green Belt - something that Simon Cooke keeps telling us.

      It's better that sites no longer needed for retail are used for something else rather than being left to rot, but in the context of Stockport an urban park would be preferable. There's a serious lack of green space in the town centre. But there's no money in that.

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    2. Although he talks about "housing the poor, the young and the homeless", in reality the kind of houses developers want to build on green belt are larger, more expensive ones that will turn far more profit than smaller, cheaper ones, and which will be bought by relatively well off people who fancy relocating or retiring to the edge of the countryside. Any attempt to get them to build houses that are in any way affordable for the less well off will therefore be resisted by them, restricted to the fewest number possible, or avoided altogether, by claiming that their inclusion would make the whole project unviable or by making a small payment towards such housing elsewhere in the local authority's area.

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    3. But if you increase the total stock of housing, then by definition more will become available further down the price scale, and also the upward pressure on prices will be relieved.

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  2. I'd have to at least partially disagree, but agree with a good number of your points.

    I think it varies greatly according to the town's size.

    Take the case of Brownhills. Just up the road from me, it's an ex mining/industrial town. You could argue perhaps that it's a suburban centre rather than a town now, but it is historically a town, just not a large one.

    Before lockdown, it was starting to thrive. The businesses have changed- they're not traditional shops so much, but rather businesses that don't transfer well to the Internet: a computer repairer, cafes, restaurants, takeaways, hairdressers- places that require people to visit. If you'd walked down the High St 5 years ago, it was half empty, if you did it in late 2019 it was doing well. There's a micropub that opened a few years back, a traditional pub in the backstreets, and believe it or not, a new pub that is waiting for lockdown restrictions to lift so it can open for the first time.

    A lot of this is, by the looks of things, due to a reasonable growth in housing within waking distance.

    Aldridge, also nearby, survives as a retail centre, but with a slightly different character- a few small traditional shops (butchers, bakers- a fortnight ago the queue at the baker's was about 15 people). I think here the unusually large amount of retirement flats nearby supports this: the general daytime population is noticeably biased to 60+, then (in normal times) the pubs and restaurants make it busy.

    What isn't fairing so well is Walsall itself, with traditional shops closing at a frightening rate, despite there being plenty of housing within walking distance. A quick glance at Wikipedia suggests Stockport and Walsall are similarish in size (both the town itself and the larger borough)

    Retail space is changing. Traditional shops lose out to Internet sales as so many of us shop online. Banks close because running a branch is a money pit, and I think this type of thing may be the key: large shop units are just not turning over enough business, small ones, for businesses that work well in bricks-and-mortar premises (like a small bakery or a barbers), work better. It seems like the right mix of housing nearby and the right sort of retail works.

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    1. There's a difference between towns that provide facilities for those who already live there, and those that fulfil a hub function. Probably quite a few similarities between Walsall and Stockport.

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  3. I disagree and think there's great potential for housing to mix in with the changing face of retail and hospitality. Now, not all development is good development, but mixed use can be very desirable. For one thing, the transport is generally very good, offering a car free life for those who want it. Now, I'm not one of these who wishes to force the removal of the car, but there's a growing percentage of young people who don't want one. Attractive housing (not just flats) in Stockport Centre could presumably encourage younger people to stay rather than leaving for Manchester, Leeds, London etc

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    1. You're missing the point there. While redeveloping retail or office space for residential purposes may make sense, it still erodes town centres' hub function and cannot be regarded as any kind of "shot in the arm".

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  4. 550 homes - is that a mistake? It would be difficult to fit 55 homes on that site. Where are they all going to park their inevitable cars?

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    1. In high rise blocks, presumably. The shop did have an underground car park which they might retain, but in the future nobody will be allowed to have a car anyway.

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  5. If they are going to be high rise blocks of flats you have to wonder where the tenants will be found. Families don't want them and young professionals who do like apartment living will much prefer to reside in central Manchester with all its attendant attractions. Stockport town centre hardly competes. The flats may well end up being occupied by benefit claimants, deadbeats and other undesirables who will hardly add to the attraction of the town centre.

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    1. Yes, as I said, "slums of the future". I really can't see flats in the centres of post-industrial towns becoming aspirational places to live.

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    2. In Newcastle city centre, some of the earliest 'regeneration' blocks of flats are approaching 25 years old and are becoming run down as the newer aspirational professional generation look to live in much more modern and trendy developments, albeit still in and close to the city centre. It's a cycle that repeats in almost all housing developments but thankfully the full decline into slum housing now rarely happens as redevelopment tends to take place faster.

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    3. When I've been to Manchester city centre recently (which I do my best to avoid) I've been struck by how it increasingly resembles the set of "Metropolis", and how the new residential towers, unlike the Victorian buildings of the city, do not look built to last. Will the Beetham Tower still be there in a hundred years' time?

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie16 March 2021 at 07:01

      In "Manchester city centre .... the new residential towers, unlike the Victorian buildings of the city, do not look built to last".
      They won't last without their lifts that won't function without the regular power supply that's assumed just as freedom from pandemics was assumed up till a year ago.

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