Is it time to bring village life back into town?
We all know that nationally, high street retail is in retreat – that’s partly a consequence of a spluttering economy and thus (hopefully) temporary, but it’s also long term and structural. The fact is that thanks to the rise and rise of internet shopping, we simply won’t need as much physical retail or even office space in future – and certainly not in smaller, traditional town centres like Wellington, which have already been terminally undermined by new purpose-built retail developments nearby.
Of course, some small towns do very well, carving out a niche for specialist, independent shops that attract high leisure time spend – look at the likes of Ludlow and Much Wenlock on our own doorstep. But not every town can thrive on niche shopping – there are simply too many towns and not enough niches.
I really do believe that based on its decent appearance, its relatively large population, its income mix and its transport links, Wellington CAN be one of those towns that thrives. But even if Wellington maximises its potential on that front, can we really expect to keep all its existing shop units topped up with healthy, quality businesses? I’m not convinced. And so we risk continuing to teeter on this knife edge, whereby one new shop opens but another closes and we’re all left wondering which way things are really going.
These aren’t only questions for Wellington, of course. Many towns are in a much worse state, and in the national debate about the future of the high street, all sorts of suggested responses are emerging. And this is where the village comes in. Some commentators are now arguing that towns like ours need to wean themselves of their obsession with retail and re-embrace a bigger mix of functions, such as residential and social – i.e. more akin to villages (or at least the original market towns, which were little more than villages) where people live and socialise as communities in their own right.
So is this a transition we should be encouraging in Wellington? Would this not be the start of a slippery slope that turns us into one big residential suburb? Or could it be a just what we need? It may well be that by bringing in some guaranteed (and potentially higher income) footfall, whilst concentrating the retail we do have into a slightly smaller area, the growth of town centre housing could actually strengthen rather than undermine the town’s businesses.
And in any case, we should remember that most market towns have a lot more housing in their centre than Wellington does – those earlier examples of Ludlow and Wenlock, for example, and even big bustling Shrewsbury.
The absence of town centre housing in Wellington is really a relatively recent development (see photos of New Street or Walker Street circa 1910 for proof) so what we’re talking about here would be a return to our roots rather than a radical departure.
The fact is that as Telford has steadily eroded demand for commercial property in Wellington from its mid-20th century peak, and with all the pressures we know the internet will heap on us further in the next decade, it’s probably time to start converting some of that town centre space back into residential. If not, we risk leaving the gaps to be filled by an imbalance of charity shops, betting shops and take-aways.
In fact, the increase in residential is already starting to happen in Wellington. Just a couple of years ago, Portway House off Church Street (formerly the hospice) was renovated into ‘luxury apartments’ (below) and The Mount on the corner of Haygate Road – a council building for decades - is soon to be given a similar make-over by the same local developers, complete with private gym and pool.
And as we speak, over 20 units right in the middle of town (above and behind the former Lloyds Bank on Church St) are on the market. Other sites in town look ripe for more of the same.
Wellington needs a plan
So if these residential developments are already happening, shouldn’t we just let Wellington find its own equilibrium without any ‘plan’? I’m not sure that’s enough, and risks big opportunities being lost.
Look at Walker Street, for instance. This lends itself better than most to houses and apartments, even at street-level, because it’s completely free of retail and isn’t really a thoroughfare anymore. The old library buildings would make great town houses, and there’s development land on either side of the road (the old tax office and now the Royal Mail depot) which could augment that offer with sympathetically designed new-builds, including maybe sheltered accommodation for older people who want to live near to shops and services.
But what if some other kind of development is proposed for part of the street – say a supermarket, or a couple of take-aways? Without clear grounds to refuse it, the council may give the go-ahead, and suddenly that very realisable vision for a high quality, residential Walker Street would go out of the window.
And the opposite is also true. There may be other parts of town (e.g. the old bus depot on Charlton Street) which we decide ARE well-suited to commercial use – a car showroom, a budget hotel, a warehouse. And yet at present, a housing developer could snap this up and cram a pile of flats onto it, and the opportunity is lost.
And this is why we need a plan. I don’t mean a plan that is overly proscriptive or economically outlandish, just something which sets up a framework in which developers can make their proposals. This development framework needs to consider, based on evidence, what different parts of the town would best be suited to, and therefore how some proposals, whilst permissible within general planning policy, could actually undermine a wider vision for land use in the town.
That means we need to be talking to business and business analysts, to developers and urban designers, and to local people, so as to understand what is viable where. Don’t get me wrong – my vision of Wellington in the future is as a thriving town with shops and services, but we need to acknowledge that other things we need to be part of the mix. We need to get upstream of those changing trends and start influencing the way they play out in our town, rather than just watching from the side lines.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Comments welcome below…