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Future generations will not forgive us for failing our town centres

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

Most places have a much-lamented building which has paid the price for progress, or what was at the time perceived as progress. “The council” is generally blamed.

In my own hometown of Rugby, those with long memories still lament the loss of the Lawrence Sheriff Almshouses, bequeathed by the grocer to Elizabeth I for the old men of the town who would otherwise be destitute. Fifteen years before I was born this row of cottages made way for road widening and new shops, including (if I remember correctly from local history books) Rugby’s first supermarket, a Fine Fare. The fact that these shops were, last time I looked, among the town’s tattiest, and include a pawnbroker, somehow adds to the loss, as does the fact that the replacement almshouses are situated in the middle of the gyratory system.

My fear is that the great loss felt by my generation of Rugbeians in our later years will not so much be one building but the entirety of the town centre. It’s not that the structure of the town centre will disappear (the Clock Tower will stand proud forever, surely!), more that it will no longer function as the centre of the town’s commercial, cultural and social life. Youths will not hang around ‘town’ looking surly, indie kids will not hide behind their overgrown fringes looking miserable as they walk through ‘town’ between the graveyard and the slightly dubious vinyl and joss stick shop, as I once did, (OK, there probably won’t be indie kids at all) and you won’t go up ‘town’ on a Friday night. The town centre will merely be the desolate area in the middle.

I only go back to Rugby a few times a year. I hope it proves me wrong at Easter but I fear the town centre will be sickly. It has been in severe decline for years as a result of the out-of-town competitor Elliott’s Field permitted by Rugby BC, and the bland Fosse Park development towards Leicester, beyond the local council’s jurisdiction. Then internet shopping hit its full stride. Now Marks’ has gone, Woolworths too (obviously) and Argos is no more. The Rugby Central shopping centre doesn’t exactly appear in rude health and is poorly served by its ultra naff rugby ball logo. Many of the wider town centre’s smaller shops have gone, the loss of the Joto model railway and hobby shop in the shadow of Rugby School, being the cruel blow revealed upon my last visit.

However, town centres should not be preserved in aspic. Indeed, their histories are of shops and pubs appearing and then closing. I have no legitimate reason other than nostalgia to mourn the closure of a hobby shop I haven’t spent money in for 25 years. However, the problem is that whereas before a new enterprise would move in when a shopkeeper retired, now it is emptiness which reigns.

Rugby, like so many other town centres, requires rejuvenation: a new purpose, a new vitality. LGC today reports on how some councils have sought to revitalise their town centres against the odds. Much of the pitch comes down to the individuality of a place, and ‘experiences’ rather than merely commerce.

When I travel around the country I am continually impressed at the sense of place demonstrated by senior officers and members. Localism means decisions are taken for the good of a place, in the unique interests of local people and based on an understanding of a complex web of local relationships. However, the rise of the internet is the ultimate tool of centralism. Online trade occurs regardless of local relationships, CO2 emissions are no barrier to mailing goods long distances and you’ve never met the person you’re buying stuff off. It is resulting in the demise of the town centre which is leaving a gaping void in a place’s heart. A place’s history generally began in what subsequently became its central business district. When its people largely stop going there, and favour digital commerce or indeed the out of town shopping centre, then it feels as if they are bypassing its soul.

There is no doubt about it: it will be an uphill struggle to secure a vibrant future for our town centres. A difficult conversation has begun with the government about how planning rules should be modified to make it easier to turn empty retail units into houses. If this process is allowed to become a free-for-all for housing developers then it runs the risk of making the rest of the shopping area unviable. Nevertheless, future generations will not forgive us if we do not fight to save our town centres. If every place looks the same, with its shops closed like those in the next town, its individuality is destroyed and it becomes far harder to say what makes our place special. When this happens it becomes far harder to make the case for localism.

Nick Golding, editor

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