Today, I will tell you how to reinvigorate the town centre ... and it isn't by remodelling the pedestrian zone.
The out-of-town decision
Wednesday was my wife’s birthday, so on Tuesday – old romantic that I am – I decided to go and buy her a present. I knew what I wanted, and knew where I could get it.
I’m at County Hall. It’s lunchtime. I have an hour free, and I decide to pop out and get the gift.
So where to go?
Durham is nearer. But oh the hassle of going there. To drive right into the centre involves a Congestion Charge. There is often a queue into the multi-storey car park, and I hate those places anyway. Meanwhile, parking anywhere in Durham costs; the nearest place I can think of where I could park free and walk is County Hall.
What about the park-and-ride? Well that costs too – £2 whether you use the bus or not – and involves all the inconvenience of waiting for a bus, and then the discomfort of a bus ride, and then having to walk to the shops from the stop.
So I went to the Arnison, out-of-town shopping centre. It was little further away than Durham, but I could drive there, park up, and get out right next to the shop I wanted to go to.
Which I did, and a very nice present I bought too!
The Parking Problem with Town Centres
So yes. It’s lazy, and ecologically unsound, and it’s destroying our town shopping centres … but we live in the age of the car. And the out-of-town shopping centre, with its ease of access and free, convenient parking, wins every time.
If you think about it, it’s the same in Newton Aycliffe. Cobbler’s Hall seems to be thriving – it always seems full of shoppers. Tesco’s gets 40,000 visitors a month. But if you go to the town centre, you rattle around like a couple of beans in a can.
And the difference? Parking in front of the shops.
There is plenty of parking in Aycliffe, and it’s free … but you have to park and walk.
And in this automobile age, it’s too much.
Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is – it’s a faff, and it turns a two-minute diversion into a 20-minute epic.
It’s a no-brainer, actually, when you think about it. About fifty years ago we decided that we did not want cars in our town centres, and we started taking measures to exclude them. What we did not realise was that, when we drove the cars out of our town centres, we were also driving out the people who drove in them.
And if we want to get those people back, we have to allow back the cars they travel in.
Beveridge Way, Newton Aycliffe – in an era when we were not trying to drive the car out of our town centres.
Forget Mary Portas – it was a waste of ink.
What our town centres need to organise is some way to replicate the park-and-shop attraction of the out-of-town shopping centres.
I can see that in many old town centres this will be difficult, but in Newton Aycliffe it could be easy.
If I owned the town centre I would level the shops on the west side from the Halifax to Woolworths, relocate the lessees, and turn that whole area from Greenwell Road to the front of Boots into a huge free car-park.
Let the cars ‘get at’ the shops, easily, and the shoppers will arrive with them.