I noted this evening with sadness but no surprise that both the Express & Star and the YamYam continue to ponder over the fate of Brownhills market, now undoubtedly in the death throes, pretty much like the town itself.
What I was not prepared for, however, was the shock that jarred my not indelicate sensibilities when I read some of the opinions of our elected representatives concerning the issue. It seems that several years after the terminal decline of our once-bustling town commenced, some people have stopped whistling in the dark and have finally noticed that we’re up shit creek, without a paddle to our name.
The market is failing currently for a number of reasons – many people still think it’s closed, as it was for eight weeks during the awkward interregnum between the council axing it under Spook Erection’s auspices and resurrecting it belatedly under their own. That indecision – now historically airbrushed by the press office as the Council bravely stepping in, even though they killed it – did a huge amount of damage. People read of the death of the attraction, and never came back. Upon reopening in September – a full two months after it was closed over the height of the summer, when business would have been greatest – the Council generated a positive maelstrom of publicity. There was talk of three days a week, resurrecting the free busses – but barely two months later, they weren’t even mentioning it in their market seasonal opening hours releases. In short, they went cold on the project, and it withered.
Rents were far too high, and there was no incentive for traders to stay. By the time those in charge realised they had a serious problem, it was too late. With stalls dwindling in number, the market withered to nothing. Part of the problem was almost certainly that problems with Walsall Market clearly distracted from those in Brownhills, but even still, this has been an unmitigated disaster.
I note in this article on the YamYam last week, the cabinet member in charge of Regeneration, Councillor Adrian Andrew, remarkably branded the traders who’d gone elsewhere ‘selfish’, as well as vowing to continue beating the dead horse mercilessly. Is he not aware that these people do what they do to make a living? If Mr. Andrew would like to drop rents to a peppercorn for a few weeks, he might stand a chance, but I’d suggest there’s more likelihood of Mike Bird cracking a smile. I’m no captain of industry, but the best way to rebuild bridges doesn’t seem to be to insult your traders. Little wonder that the only difference between Brownhills and the Titanic seems to have been the presence of a band.
Meanwhile, somewhat astoundingly, the normally exuberantly optimistic Councillor Barbara Cassidy seems to have become tired of arranging deck chairs on the stricken ship, and seems to be making preparations to leave the vessel by her own means. In tonight’s article, reproduced above, she asserts correctly that ‘The whole of Brownhills High Street is a massive problem’ and that ‘…there are 26 fast food outlets… people aren’t coming to Brownhills because there’s naff all to buy’. Whilst I welcome the sudden outbreak of reality in civic quarters, I can’t help wondering where Mrs. Cassidy has been for the past 15 years. Surely it was the council who granted licenses to those outlets? Take a look at our High Street. Partially block paved, critically not where the pavements are roughest; a deserted, decaying central precinct. Empty shops mingle with patches of unkempt wasteland, peopled by loafing groups of drunk, disaffected youths. Weeds sprout round street furniture, and the only shops doing good business seem to be bookies, off-licenses and fast food merchants. Even the charity shops have started to close up.
I went to purchase a cycling magazine just before Christmas from the town’s newsagent, only to find that the copy they had in stock dated from the previous October. If Brownhills wants custom, it has to meet us half way. I found it kind of symbolic.
The municipal neglect evidenced in Brownhills should serve as a warning to other, more prosperous satellites of Walsall, such as Bloxwich and Willenhall. It is through municipal neglect that we’ve come to this forlorn place – this didn’t start with the downturn, but the recession of the early eighties. There’s clearly no development direction for Brownhills, as is amply demonstrated by the likes of the McWarreners saga – now looking even worse as a car wash that it did in abandonment. We’ve only just started to get stuff built on the site of housing demolished 6 years ago, and huge swathes of the town are just scrub. Where there were homes – and customers – there are now weeds, and no plans to replace them with the bricks and mortar of community. Why has been allowed to happen? When the hateful flats in Pleck were demolished, there was rebuilding almost straight away. A huge amount of store was clearly invested at a civic level in the almost mythical new Tesco Development, which still seems to be stumbling. Every doomed ‘consultation’ – be it about bypasses or wider redevelopment issues – chews up time but achieves nothing. These things – coupled with greater social mobility – have contributed to the great decline of a once thriving town.
This is why I rail about the likes of the Walsall Wood pit head; we’ve got a miner that was going to stand as a symbol of regeneration and pride, yet with pick and lamp in hand, I suspect him to be more Ozymandias than optimist. Perhaps that’s why he’s gazing out of town, maybe like so many others, he’s making plans to desert Brownhills, and frankly, I wouldn’t blame him if he did.