Last week I spent an enjoyable hour talking about a shopping centre in Wigan. Seriously.
As one who can go to extraordinary lengths to avoid shopping in general, and shopping centres in particular, this is some admission. My family will vouch for the fact that I’ve set foot in Meadowhall (or Meadowhell, as it’s known locally) once. The only time I ended up in Manchester’s Arndale Centre was when I was lost.
What I hate about shopping centres would fill a couple of encyclopaedias. But just as a taster, think piped muzak, security guards, car parks, clone town shops, overpriced microwaved food, and stores that sell everything except the thing you’ve come to buy.
So it was an eye-opener to talk to some developers who appear to be serious about involving local communities in what goes on in their shopping centres, and concerned to give each an identity that reflects its locality. Apparently in Wigan, you can’t do this without giving Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls a strong presence.
Now I may be naive. It may well be that there’s no such thing as a capitalist who isn’t greedy, and that the only way to recognise a developer is by the sight of the dorsal fin circling you before the kill. I’ve met a few who fit the stereotype.
But I’d like to think it doesn’t have to be this way: that you can be a successful business without riding roughshod over local people, and that corporate identity doesn’t mean submerging everyone else’s.
I’d like to think a shopping centre can be a hub of community activity and a place where people can participate in something more meaningful than simply handing over their cash. Where better to host community cafes (with genuine homemade cakes, please), time banks, credit unions and advice services than at the commercial heart of a town rather than in some tatty back street? Where better to showcase local artists and offer a stage to local musicians?
To do that requires enlightened developers, and they often seem thin on the ground. But it also requires communities to suspend their disbelief. Organisations that work with developers may themselves be regarded with cynicism and suspicion. It takes time to break down those barriers, and a willingness on all sides to listen and change. But why not?
Julian Dobson, editor, New Start Online magazine