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…
I couldn’t agree more. Bringing houses back to life in Wellington’s centre would reinvigorate the town and make it an even more attractive place to live for everybody. I think the idea of lobbying for a coherent plan along these lines is spot on.
Not often that I return to Wellington nowadays, but on a recent visit I was impressed by the design of the new civic centre and the promise it holds as fore runner to the progressive renewal of the town centre. The framework and infrastructure exist for imaginative planning solutions and the possibility of an interesting mixture of uses, including residential.
One thing which struck me while walking around is that the pedestrian access to the centre from the west is hampered by fast moving traffic on the “ring road:” This was probably a traffic planning solution from the good old days, but it changed the balance of access in favour of vehicles and placed the needs of pedestrians from immediately outside the ring road at the lower end of the list in terms of priorities to be met. Perhaps the time has come to reassess the balance and give pedestrians from beyond the ring road improved means of access to the centre.
Thanks for the comment, Ken. I do think the new civic buildings are an asset – early on we were concerned they’d be a bit of blot on the townscape, but the council at the time were willing to listen to our design ideas and the architect quite radically altered the appearance accordingly (brick, pitched rooves, elongated windows to mirror Georgian sashes, even rendering one section white ot break up the monotony). It’s certainly improved that entrance to the conservation area. What we hope now is that redevelopment of the old library buildings on Walker St, what ever that ends up being, complements that.
I agree that the ring road can be a bit foreboding – it’s been around longer than me, so I’m used to it, but looking at old photos it does seem to have created a false boundary around the town’s centre. A lot of towns are reassessing that balance between cars and people, in favour of the latter, although in the Wellington case I’m not sure how that could be done – slowing that ring road traffic, considering there’s so much of it trying to skirt around the town in a hurry, may well be very unpopular!
Using the spaces above the retail shops is a really good idea and has already started to happen in Wellington. Having people living in the town centre can bring much needed vitality and life to the town in the evenings and enhance security for the shopkeepers. However, we must not give up on the revitalisation of the shopping offer. Similar sized towns to Wellington are thriving with a mixture of niche independent shop-keepers and national traders, supported by dynamic community and corporate leadership and proactive marketing – there are lots of positive examples on the Action for Market Towns website http://www.towns.org.uk and a really good example is the small Lincolnshire town of Market Rasen (www.marketrasenguide.co.uk) where strong community leadership has specifically worked very hard (and successfully) to fill vacant retail space with the support of the Mary Portas team. Tourism to the Wrekin is an area where Wellington could develop its economy by providing a shuttle bus service to the Forest Glen and a visitors interpretation centre. The probable reintroduction of a new direct rail service to London in December will be an opportunity that should be grasped, to actively promote the town and to encourage new investment and bring in visitors. The historic buildings in Walker Street (namely the old library) still provide an opportunity for a visitors centre/museum/heritage centre (although it looks as if the Edgbaston House block has sadly been sold for flats). I believe this is a missed opportunity for the town. The town should have a more optimistic and ambitious agenda to develop its own individual identity within a larger borough and a community driven ‘town plan’ could support this.
Thanks Dave. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t give up on revitalisation of the shopping offer- and occassionally when new places open, we get glimpses of ‘green shoots’. In any case, most town centre shops, certainly in the pedestrian area, wouldn’t be appropriate for housing – I’m thinking more about the big office spaces in converted houses (which could easily be converted back), and also those shops where retail businesses are clinging on to the outskirts of the town which might do better to come into the centre, or finally, where there are currently gaps and therefore redevelopment opportunities – such as the postal depot on Walker St. My worry is that without some sort of plan, regarding both design and land use, we’ll end up missing some cracking opportunities.
I’d love to see some sort of exhibition/heritage centre in the old library buildings, I’m just not sure the local will is there – the Clifton idea has taken off fantastically, attracting a broad base of support, but I don’t think it would be as easy to rally enthusiasm around the old library – which is a shame, because it would be a much more manageable project financially, and the building is already council-owned. I agree it’s a shame about Edgbaston House as well.
What I would like to see is some sort of ‘town team’ to take different things forward. This needn’t mean employing lots of new people, perhaps just a town manager type of role, with the right people seconded in on a part time basis from the borough council, other organisations, and volunteer input as well (alongside some councillors). That seems to be working in some other towns.
There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of square metres of floor space lying empty or designated as offices on the upper floors of buildings all over the centre of Wellington.
What’s needed is a concerted effort by both the Town and Borough councils to get all these spaces converted to residential accommodation. The office market is minimal, the people market, especially for low cost ‘starter’ spaces (owned or rented) is burgeoning.