The whole Brownhills-Tesco thing has left me interested in the breadth and spread of local opinion, in a way I don’t normally see it. I’m interested in theories people have, their perceptions, and what they see the future to be.
I’ve also become aware of quite a lot of misconception, which is natural, but concerning – particularly in Facebook comments. I was going to comment on this on the original post, but the issue is large, and I think it merits a post of it’s own.
I think at the outset, it’s fair to say we all remember old Brownhills to some degree; I remember the busy town of the 70s, with the bustling market (which did have a reputation for selling tat, even then, but was very popular), loads of little shops, a couple of medium size (for the day) supermarkets and numerous little, independent shops. How I’d love to be able to go to Elkins for a pound of nails, or Woods Bike Shop for an innertube again. I’m sure older readers hanker for the days of Princeps, Brenda Perry or Craddocks. But time moves on.
When Hillards, Great Mills and a new road system came to Brownhills in the mid-80s, the rot had already set in. A newly emergent section of society were discovering mobility, afforded by cheaper cars and increasing wealth of the upper working class. Unsurprisingly, market forces were quick to take advantage, and the out of town boom was born.
I remember radio adverts for Savacentre, in Oldbury, and Carrefour in Telford, and they sounded almost exotic. Together with Asda in Bloxwich and other growing retail monoliths, the idea of driving to a large site – most likely on the fringes of town – was sold, and became normal. More of us would go to Walsall, or perhaps Lichfield, or Sutton. The car – and the media – was expanding our horizons.
The retail giants had another ace in the pack; they were often much cheaper than smaller shops. People flocked to them, exercising their economic prerogative. By the time Tesco bought Hillards and started it’s transition into a dominant commercial force, Brownhills was already being measured for it’s coffin.
The reasons Brownhills died were not complex and don’t, I believe, rest at the feet of Tesco, or for that matter the planners. They largely rest with us. We had the choice to go elsewhere. We took it. Brownhills withered, and died. In that, it was not unique. The small town High Street is suffering, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout the UK. We chose to drive to Asda, or Sainsbury’s and pay 10% less for a bag of sugar. We liked the increased range, the new products and lifestyle choices afforded. For all of the homeliness and community, we got a taste for things the small traders of Brownhills couldn’t provide at prices we liked. The transfer of the High Street balance of commerce from retail to service sectors started.
Where there was retail space, fast food, betting shops and other service providers moved in. Thus a process that started with the loss of small grocers moved to completion. We had a High Street that now had a large percentage of retail units closed during the day, or providing seldom-needed services. The place became less attractive to visit. A race to the bottom ensued.
There were other factors, too. The rise of the working housewife drained vital daytime trade, and moved demand to weekends. It also made shopping time a time critical thing, as it now ate into leisure time. The convenience of getting stuff all done in one place and quickly was seductive, and won.
To my mind, this would have happened with or without Tesco in Brownhills. The effects may have differed slightly, but the writing was on the wall socially, and the tide was strong. Tesco’s presence in Brownhills was neither the start of, nor cause of it’s decline, but it was a symptom of a wider change in society.
The planning issue is interesting. I continually hear ‘x is the planners fault’ or ‘Brownhills was wrecked by the town planners’. People are often shocked by how little of Brownhills is actually under council control, and how much was historically private development. Ravens Court, for instance, is not controlled, owned nor designed by Walsall Council or any other, but was built by Ravenseft, a big developer of the day (hence ‘Ravens Court’). What goes on there – and what it’s fate ultimately is – is not in the hands of the Council but of the private owners to whom it still belongs.
People tend to misunderstand how planning works, and how rigid it is. For right or wrong, planning is limited in its power; if you want to build a superstore in Brownhills, you apply. You employ consultants and urban design specialists to suggest designs, road and traffic changes, that sort of thing. These people are experts, and know every nook and cranny of planning law. When that application is put to the council – who also have a legal duty to advise the prospective developer on what may or may not be acceptable – there are a very narrow set of constraints on which the application is judged. It must comply with the law, and any relevant mandatory guidance, like respecting environmental concerns. The committee have to listen to objections, but again, these have by law to be looked at in a very constrained way.
The planning Committee can’t refuse if they don’t like the store owners, or if they feel it will destroy a town. Whilst objections to such can be made, their scope for consideration is very, very limited. In such cases, Walsall have previously had some remarkable successes, actually.
Good examples of this misconception abounded in Lichfield recently, when the rumour went round that the Council had refused permission for a Poundland as it was too downmarket – with similar howls of outrage about the coming Primark in Walsall. There is no planning legislation appropriate for retail snobbery, fortunately. Considering the objections to Lichfield’s Poundland, I do wonder who the store is actually choc full of at the weekends…
Providing the development you want to build is acceptable in law, and the objections are considered, the Planning Committee cannot refuse permission. If it does, the application will be appealed, approved by a higher body, and the Authority forced to pay costs. Faceless ‘planners’ at Walsall are not responsible for the current or proposed development. They will have made suggestions, based on consultations, but they have relatively minor input.
This is evidenced in Edwina’s recent comment about the ‘Planners’ she felt were responsible for the houses at the Silver Waters development being, in her view ‘too close to the road’. Quite simply, the planners had no control over this. The architects designed a development. It complied with regulations. They had no real case to object. The issue, if there is one, is the legal framework round building regulations. Under the current, developer-freindly government, this is only going to get more relaxed.
I’m no fan of Tesco, and their behaviour towards Brownhills has been a disgrace. My view has always been that a new store would be approved, which it was. My contention was that a good enough deal was never hammered out with the community to ameliorate it’s effects. I thought the new design was awful, and would have proved even more of a barrier to the High Street, but there was nothing that could be done. Tesco never bought the land required, instead, retaining the option to buy when required. To that end, the current owners of Ravens Court vacated tenants steadily and allowed it to decline. This was a dreadful thing, and I’m not sure how we can recover from it. The council have no control over this, and when one thinks carefully, the land Ravens Court stands on isn’t big enough to build much upon with parking.
As part of this, various agencies clearly undertook change, or allowed neglect, in preparation for an imminent Tesco rebirth, which initially promised houses, shop units, restaurants and other fanciful things. Sadly, senior members of the community fell for this promise, and believing in an eventual renaissance, conditions slid even further. This itself is grim beyond words.
To take a community so far up the garden path, then abandon it is cruelty, and nothing less.
The idea that the people of Brownhills can suddenly wrest control from the evil authorities and spur some retail renaissance is also a bit specious. The social factors causing the decline of retail in so many places are the rise of the internet and social mobility. To get small stores into Brownhills, it needs much better facilities and a far improved environment. Looking at Lichfield, experiencing similar issues with a huge tourist trade, it’s clearly hard to attract small business. We actually have a steady stream of small companies opening here – but many don’t endure. I’m thinking the model shop, pet shop, motorcycle shop, clothes shops – all lost n the last 12 months, none more than a couple of years old. In a town that had over a thousand dwellings ripped from it’s heart, it’s bloody hard to survive.
We need regeneration desperately. We need to attract small business that will endure. It’s notable that the one bit of retail space that is controlled by Walsall Council is Silver Court, and that’s nearly fully let. The town needs to form good partnerships, both with its traders and the consumers. However, above all that, it needs big money investment. It’s damned hard to attract and there’s not much on the table.
I suspect the future for towns like ours is for the High Street to contract, and be partially replaced with housing. To that end, that’s why I find the mooted development at Lanes Farm so bizarre. We need to draw residence to the centre of towns and avoid the doughnut effect so evident here right now.
Walsall Council have done many, many utterly daft things in Brownhills, and I’m no fan. However, they aren’t the cause of the current mess in the way some hold them to be. The real cause is ourselves, our freedom to choose, and changing societal mores. Whilst it’s heartening and positive to cry for a return to a golden past, you can’t jump in the same river twice, and recreating that past would be impossible.
Instead, we must press for for better developments from commerce, as far as that’s possible, and think about, and discuss, the way we’d like stuff to change.
This isn’t a definitive response, and I expect many to disagree. I anticipate that Andy Dennis will have something to say. I welcome it all. We need to have the conversation, but I think we need to appreciate the limitations and what is actually possible.
It’s a damn sight easier to place blame than solve a problem.