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.