It’s been a while since I first posted that the application had been submitted for the new Tesco store in Brownhills. Since approval of the scheme can be viewed as inevitable, there would seem to be little point in further comment on the matter. However, there’s some stuff in this sellout that is really beginning to trouble me. I’m concerned about where the retail giant stops, and where our council starts.
Since the plans were first submitted unannounced back in May, there’s been a gentle drip of positive spin coming from the press unit over at the council, the most recent example of which being the article in the Walsall Express & Star on Tuesday, June 1st 2010, which I’ve scanned and included below, as no online copy exists. In it, we’re placated with the news that the council is listening to the eight traders that will be evicted from the Ravens Court, and that alternative premises will be found for them. We’re told that there’s ‘broad support’ for the project, and that a new home will be sourced for the senior citizens group, whose custom-built base will be demolished. We’re assured that the council are carefully assessing the views of the town. There’s just one snag; I can’t seem to find a single person whose opinion has been sought.
Looking at the plans again, and taking notes of comments on the blog, I’m wondering why Tesco seem to be getting such a good deal here. I can certainly see why the council didn’t leap to announce the scheme’s submission. Far from the 12 new retail units and Lichfield-style store on stilts, fronting on to the High Street, what we’re actually to be blessed with falls far short of the retail utopia originally consulted on by Tesco. Rightly, the scheme entails the destruction of the dingy and unpleasant precinct, yet it replaces it with just three retail units bridging the gap where Ravens court was. These are to be wedged in between the existing units either side of the precinct, and are to be styled to blend in with them. The rest of the forlorn, unpleasant shopping centre will remain in the dirty, decaying condition it is in today. That’s it, that’s the extent of the regeneration the retail giant will be providing in exchange for the soul of Brownhills.
In return for this huge largesse, the retail giant will be demolishing Brownhills Senior Citizens Centre – a popular, purpose built amenity constructed when the town was remodelled for the current store, originally owned by Hillards, some 25 years ago. Back then, the developers were expected to provide such facilities, as well as the pedestrianisation of Pier Street, a new home for the market and the traffic system we use today. The demolition of the social amenity by the current plan seems little more than malicious; it is being razed to provide ‘Overflow car parking’, yet a glance at the site plan shows that after construction, the current market site will be left barren and undeveloped. This resultant empty space will render the Pier Street area an open, ashphalt and scrub prarie all the way from the front of the new store (broadly level with the entrance of the current store) to Humpries house, with only low shrubbery to break the gale that will undoubtedly blow across it..
Silver Street will apparently be expanded to take two-way traffic along it’s full length, which seems sensible, but the scheme will result in an extra signal controlled junction where it meets the High Street by Farmfoods, and a second at the entrance to the car park. Any hope Brownhills residents had of seeing the promised transport package – part-pedestrianisations, bus interchange, bypass and so forth – have clearly been thrown out with the bathwater. Our future traffic scheme will be developed to ensure that visitors are funnelled onto the car park and into Tesco, and subsequently away again, as efficiently as possible without ever having to see the rest of the town, except in their rear-view mirrors.
It’s notable that since my original post on these plans, a slightly revised layout has just been submitted, moving the new store entrance to the canal end of the building. It’s not clear why, but this will result in an ever further walk for any pedestrian visitors from the High Street.
In the midst of this, Walsall Council seem to be quite happy to be doing the PR for the project. Indeed, they seem to be doing a lot of public relations work for Tesco developments in Walsall and Bloxwich, too. I would have thought that the council should be reasonably impartial in planning matters such as this, but I’m unclear how that squares with the likes of Councillor Adrian Andrew asserting that there is ‘Broad support for the scheme‘, and ‘The outline proposals for the Tesco are very exciting and build upon the regeneration strategy for Brownhills‘. I’d certainly like to see some stats on that. Recently, Walsall’s press office announced that a new, deeply unpopular alteration to Walsall’s traffic flow was being brought forward to expedite the opening of the new Tesco store on the former college site. Were they really expecting us to believe that the store would remain shut and idle for 12 weeks otherwise? Cant’t a company the size of Tesco manage their own press? Since when were council tax payers expected to fund PR for multinational companies? I, like many others, am becoming increasing concerned about the relationship between a commercially aggressive retail giant and a cash-strapped council that seems ready to assent to anything they’re asked.
In the ‘Statement of Community Involvement’ supplied with the planning application, the developers note the following:
‘Tesco met with representatives from the Brownhills Development Team on 28th January 2010 to present the latest development proposals and to seek their feedback on the suggested changes. Attendees included Tesco, DPP, Saunders, Aspect and Pinnacle Transportation.’
‘A formal response received from the Development Team following the presentation via regeneration manager Paul Nicholson, noted that the revised scheme was ‘welcomed in principle, having the potential to bring major regeneration benefits to Brownhills District Centre and the wider area. As such, the Council is keen to assist in delivering a comprehensive scheme that will assist in securing the future viability and vitality of the Centre.’
The statement goes on to concede that public consultation was undertaken within the Tesco store on the earlier, grander scheme on three days in late 2008, and that the results were very positive. Which is hardly surprising, whose customer wouldn’t want a better experience? However, carrying out such a survey amongst existing patrons does rather preclude those outside the customer base, which doesn’t seem like a thoroughly balanced survey to me.
From the same document, comes the remarkable statement:
‘During the course of the consultation process we have been encouraged by the enthusiasm of Brownhills’ residents for our plans and their potential to play a real part in the regeneration of the Brownhills area.’
‘These sentiments have been echoed by the many councillors we have met with during the development of this scheme. One in particular told us at the public consultation: “Without Tesco the high street will die”. The death of the High Street is certainly not our goal. We are committed to the aim of creating a vibrant, modern shopping community which can help revitalise, not dominate, the town.’
In a nutshell, Tesco will be demolishing and removing the focal point of this town. They will be replacing it with the minimum retail units required to fill the gap they create. The development will destroy – but not apparently replace – a popular community facility for the elderly. The new store will not change significantly the run-down, unpleasant appearance of the main retail thoroughfare of Brownhills; the same dingy, down-at-heel 1960’s shops will remain. The transport, and indeed retail improvements we were promised will not take place as part of this project. Huge swathes of the town centre will remain as open, unused land, including the former market. Existing traders will be displaced. What’s most frightening is that Walsall Council seem perfectly happy about this, are are content to continue their dissemination of corporate propaganda as if there were no alternative, or indeed, opposition.
I want a better Brownhills. I want to see the hideous old developments replaced. I want a proper, community-centred focal point to our town. I want a retail and transport strategy that encourages smaller businesses to grow and thrive. Is being able to sit in an overpriced coffee bar drinking tasteless brown water really worth the destruction of the little independent trade we have left? I think not. Yeah, you’ll get a Costa, but at what price?
Would the last person to leave this town please switch off the lights and throw a dust sheet over the miner? Thanks.