A few months before the pandemic struck, Nigel Cooke found himself under incredulous interrogation at a Local Government Association get-together in Loughborough. As the Stockton-on-Tees councillor responsible for regeneration, it had been Cooke’s call to buy up a vast shopping centre that has dominated the town’s high street since the 1970s.
“Word had got round that we’d bought a shopping centre that had come on the market,” says Cooke. “The gist of the response from fellow councillors was: ‘Are you mad? There’s no future in shopping centres’. I said: ‘We’ve not bought it to run as a shopping centre. We’ve bought it to knock it down’. They said: ‘You’re even madder than we thought’. No one had thought of doing what we’re doing.”
These days, other councils are knocking on Stockton’s door seeking advice. Pre-Covid, the decline in Britain’s town centres and high streets had been inexorable but slow-burning. The pandemic, hollowing out urban centres and accelerating the shift online, has led to a tipping point. After the first Covid lockdown last year, one study judged that close to half of Britain’s retail businesses carried a significant risk of failure . Chain stores are shutting, shopping thoroughfares are more gap-toothed than ever, and the huge malls which once symbolised modernity are going bust.
Hybrid working patterns are likely to mean a permanent reduction in town-centre footfall, with implications for cafes and bars. Bowing to the seemingly inevitable, the government has just approved planning laws which give property developers a green light to transform commercial premises into housing.
But should the future be left up to property developers and the calculations of the market? For much of the last century, Stockton, which has a population of about 85,000, thrived as a gritty hub in the great manufacturing conurbation of Teesside. Middlesbrough lies a few miles east; the great chemical works of ICI, which influenced the writing of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, were just down the road in Billingham.
Iron, steel, shipbuilding and chemicals shaped the town and the region. The Tees, dividing Stockton from rural North Yorkshire, was a working river, thick with pollution but generating wealth.
That world has gone, taking with it the stable, skilled jobs that gave young people a secure future. As much of the retail sector now goes the same way, the council has gone back to first principles, seeking to get a grip on a former industrial hub’s 21st century identity.
“What are town centres for?” asks Cooke. “This is an existential threat we are facing. If people are not coming into town to shop at Debenhams because there is no Debenhams, there is no Marks & Spencer and so on, what are they going to come in to do? The council and the people we represent are the guardians of this place. You can’t just let things carry on. You have to be proactive and have some ambition.”
The Globe Theatre has had a £28m facelift and is expected to provide a footfall of up to 200,000 visitors a year. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
The Stockton vision is to buy up, repurpose, restore and reconfigure the heart of the town, emphasising events, independent enterprise, green space and conviviality. As a glamorous statement of intent, in just over a fortnight one of the finest art deco theatres in Britain will reopen its doors. The Globe, a Grade II listed building, has stood derelict on the high street for a quarter of a century, rotting from within. Built in 1935, in its heyday it hosted the Beatles, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder. On 6 September, McFly will play the first gig of a new era, at the biggest venue of its kind between Newcastle and Leeds.
The cost of the lavish and exquisite restoration – funded by council borrowing and a lottery grant – soared close to £30m and has generated political pushback. But according to Claire Frawley, the council’s town centre development officer, it will provide jobs, a revitalised sense of place and a footfall of up to 200,000 visitors a year, acting as a regenerative hub for the new Stockton.
“People are desperate to get involved,” says Frawley, “they’re desperate to come and work here. There will be public tours soon, and the local demand is huge. This place is part of the town’s heritage and you can feel the pride.”
Stockton on Tees high street will aim to promote local identity. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Finalised plans for the vast Castlegate shopping centre were rubber-stamped this month, having already got the thumbs-up after a public consultation. The modernist behemoth, a monument to the functionalist aesthetics of the 1970s, will be knocked down and replaced by a park three times the size of Trafalgar Square. Equipped with a library and leisure centre, the new green space will link the high street directly to the River Tees, showcasing Stockton’s principal natural asset.
“The river is totally different to how it was in the industrial era when it was black,” says Cooke. “The Tees barrage [built in 1995 to prevent flooding] means it is always high tide, and rowers and water sports are back. There are salmon in the Tees again. The aim is to create a cultural feel around events, festivals and so on. Other towns will have their particular assets. Our story is a wonderful riverside. Make the most of what you have got.”
Other towns will have their particular assets. Our story is a wonderful riverside. Make the most of what you have gotNigel Cooke
Castlegate’s retail outlets will be relocated to the Wellington Square shopping centre at the northern end of the high street, filling the spaces the chain stores left behind. Almost half the financing for the project is coming from the government’s Future High Streets Fund; most of the rest is being provided by Tees Valley, now Tory-led. For the only Labour-led council left on Teesside, making friends across the political divide has been imperative.
“Sometimes you have to put your political flag down,” says Cooke. “The Conservative government has brought in the Future High Streets Fund. We put a bid in. They said they were looking for something that was visionary, transformative and bold. Our plans are certainly that.”
Cooke and his fellow councillors have also financed the building of a town centre hotel a stone’s throw from the Globe, after borrowing £17m. The hope is that the council-owned Hampton by Hilton will deliver an annual profit of £250,000 to help fund services.
The promotion of local identity, and businesses which are embedded in the places they serve, is seen as key to a future in which the chain-store era has been left behind. Further down the widest high street in Britain, premises vacated by a department store have been bought up and turned into the Fountain mall Enterprise Arcade, where independent businesses can pay a peppercorn rent as they seek to get off the ground.
“We’re very proud of this place,” says Cooke. “There are shops here that you won’t find in Leeds and Newcastle because they are unique. In an ideal world, we want to create places like this, promoting independent shops with strong community roots as much as we can. The good times will return to this place but not in the shape of global chain-store empire. That’s broken.”
Will it work? According to John Tomaney, professor of urban and regional planning at University College London, Stockton’s hyper-active council has come up with “one of the few genuinely innovative strategies around.”
Tomaney, who lives a few miles away in Gateshead, is a critic of what he describes as a dominant “city-centric” approach to regeneration in the post-industrial age. “For years, there has been an emphasis on knowledge-intensive businesses and infrastructure in the centre of, say, Manchester,” he says, “in the hope that places like Rochdale will eventually benefit. It hasn’t worked.
“What they are doing in Stockton is quite different. It seems to be more of a kind of wellbeing approach to urban development, forgetting about the property sector and its needs. There is never going to be a concentration of knowledge-intensive businesses and services in Stockton.
“What you can do is make it a place that people want to visit, that offers amenities and conveys the general sense that it is a place on the up. It’s genuinely entrepreneurial and creative on the part of the council to take this approach. It’s offering an alternative to the orthodoxy, prioritising the flourishing of the community rather than the competitiveness of the office sector.”
What you can do is make it a place people want to visit, that offers amenities and conveys a sense it is on the upJohn Tomaney
Richard Drake, whose independent bookshop was shortlisted in this year’s British Book Awards and has just expanded its premises, has seen at first hand the benefits that this approach can bring. “I am a huge, huge advocate of what is being done here in Stockton. I started out at the Enterprise Arcade, playing at shops if you like. I paid a peppercorn rent and I am considerably less grey than I would have been without that support and chance to try things out. It meant that for the first year you could just build a relationship with your customers – find out who they are, what they needed and build reciprocal loyalty.
“I can tell you exactly what our first customer order was: The Troll by Julia Donaldson. And we’ve been very, very good friends with the customer who bought it ever since.”
Anxieties unleashed by the pandemic brought home to Drake the strength of the bonds that had been established. “So many people were saying: ‘I hope you are there at the end of all this.’ The same guy after both lockdowns was the first person back through the door. John is not a huge book-buyer but he feels comfortable being here and likes to come in for a natter. There is just a thirst for community out there.”
Richard Drake of Drakes bookshop, is “a huge, huge advocate” of what the council is doing. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Updated last year in light of Covid, The Grimsey review on the future of town centres and high streets confirms that the pandemic has accelerated their demise as traditional shopping destinations. But the study also strikes an optimistic note, arguing that the crisis has “paved the way for a post-retail landscape to emerge”. For that to happen, local communities must be empowered to redesign themselves and set their own priorities. “We can only hope,” state the authors, “that the leaders of our towns have used the lockdown to pause and reflect – and that decisive action will follow.”
The Stockton experiment represents one route out of the crisis, which seeks to develop what Tomaney calls “social infrastructure”. “That is the big issue in these kind of places,” he says. “What’s been missing is the stuff that allows people to flourish and brings them together. The things that get people out of their Facebook worlds and into the community, solving problems.”
Attractive green space, an art deco theatre restored to its former glory, a council-run hotel, subsidised shops and water sports on the river; it is a long way from the days when the Tees was nicknamed “Steel River”, and equally distant from the commercial vision that led to the opening of the Castlegate centre in 1972.
One way or another, dramatic transition is unavoidable in Stockton and towns across Britain. Tomaney also points out that, given the enormous cuts imposed on local authorities during a decade of austerity, the challenge is huge for any town attempting to shape the future rather than become a victim of it. While central government programmes such as the Future High Streets Fund have provided vital capital funding, ongoing revenue support will be required to maintain the new Stockton park, for example.
But Cooke is optimistic: “Across the country,” he says, “this is probably the biggest evolution in town centres in a generation. But our wonderful high street can be an asset rather than a burden. People of my daughter’s generation won’t be saying ‘I love going into town to go to M&S. They’ll be saying they love going to the park or the Globe, or the Hope and Union micro pub. That’s what their vision of Stockton town centre will be.”
The pandemic has accelerated the long decline of our high streets. According to the British Retail Consortium, the cycle of lockdowns crippled footfall. Shop vacancy rates stood at 13.7% in the fourth quarter of 2020, with a 47% increase in vacant units in the City of London from 2019 to 2020. Meanwhile, a 35.2% share of spending went online in January 2021, the highest on record.
More than 17,500 chain store outlets disappeared from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks last year. An average of 48 shops, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed permanently every day across England, Wales and Scotland, and only 21 opened.
Famous names went, including the entire Debenhams chain, some John Lewis outlets, and Topshop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. Fashion retailers werehardest hit last year, with more than 1,100 lost, including Laura Ashley, Warehouse, Oasis and Jaeger.
The government’s stimulus measures include a business rates holiday, £5bn restart grant scheme, support from the levelling-up fund and £830m for the Future High Streets Fund.