The town centre cannot hold

Living in Oxford for ten years, and little Cotswolds villages for another couple of years, gives one an unrealistic expectation of the pace of civic change. While the loss of certain tenants of the public space – pubs, bookshops, ancient trees – can give a pang to the heart, it’s far to say that to wander around the Oxford streets of 2012 is more or less to wander around the Oxford streets of 1995.

Blackburn and Witney town councils, however – representing my youth and my present respectively – seem determined to wreck as much as they can of their inhabitants’ shared memory. Mostly they each concentrate on bits from the semi-recent past, in the hope that people don’t attach too much affection to them – not true – are more accepting of their loss – sadly, probably true – and have forgotten that the 1960s have done the job that the councils are trying to avoid, of already demolishing the real architectural heritage that might otherwise get in the way.

Witney’s Marriott’s Walk development is an epitome of the unwanted. Built on a flood plain, registered in Luxembourg and full of ersatz-sized versions of the chain stores that are much better represented in Oxford’s few shopping centres anyway, Marriott’s Walk is of no obvious civic value. Indeed, the flow of money out of Witney – to tax havens, multinational corporations and the time-is-money convenience of remotely homed car drivers – might be considered a net civic loss. At around the same time, Blackburn’s town council tore out its old market-stall buildings – greengrocers and haberdashers along with them – and stuck a The Mall Blackburn in their place: a clumsy, syntaxless construction designating a clunking, soulless one.

I hope Witney can learn lessons from Blackburn, but I doubt if they will. For a while, I was starting to think that the conflicted feelings from my youth were gradually being resolved by gentle improvements to the unlovely yet loved in Blackburn. I would visit the then prettified market halls with mixed feelings of nostalgia and admiration that the old could be preserved in a vivified new. Now, after a The Mall Blackburn-sized bomb blast has removed much of what could have engendered my pride in the town, there’s not much left for me there; when I return to visit relatives, some ten miles out of Blackburn, I only ever go shopping in nearby Preston.

And why would I do otherwise these days? After all, if everywhere is a The Mall Everywhere, then what is left to distinguish one town from another, apart from its location and nearness? And is that, in the end, the whole point?

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2 Responses to The town centre cannot hold

  1. looby says:

    Every new shopping development is justified by the council-led refrain that people are shopping in teh neighbouring town. It’s not true anyway. I don’t know many people in Lancaster who go to Kendal to buy toilet roll and shampoo.

    Our market was sold a few years ago to a private company who leased it back to the City. It’s now been closed, at huge cost, as the City Council has decided to buy out the lease and sell it on. A publicly-owned space selling things that people actually need before the days of camping out for days to get a new type of mobile phone, is now in the hands of a private company, adn I dare say a The Mall Lancaster will not be long.

    • smallbeds says:

      The town council in Witney doesn’t know how to run a town. They only know how they feel a town ought to be run, and that includes concepts they’ve learnt off the Archers like “we must surely be competing with Oxford.”

      Oxford itself neither knows nor cares that Witney exists, but this then leads to dangerous thoughts like “let’s build a Marks and Spencer’s on the flood plain, that’s considerably shitter than Oxford’s version, but then it looks like we’re tackling this nonexistent problem of town-by-town competition. That’s what residents want. Well, the ones still above water.”

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