Ever since I moved to Stoke-on-Trent in 1995 there has been one word on the lips of local bigwigs: regeneration. But 14 years on it has proceeded at snail's pace. Since the pits closed and pot making was outsourced to China, for many Potters the recession of the early 1980s never ended. Therefore regeneration in terms of prime-pumping the city's economic base and providing thousands of jobs is much-needed. From this perspective yesterday's announcement that a £275million shopping development (pictured) will finally get built in the officially renamed 'Stoke-on-Trent city centre' sounds like a reason to be cheerful.
The council's press release says:
A development agreement for a £275 million regional shopping centre in Stoke-on-Trent city centre has been given the go ahead.Woohoo! The good times are coming back! Or are they? I can't help being sceptical of the economic claims being made by the project's backers. First though, let me lay my cards on the table. Stoke might be a dreary and depressing place but it is a city I've grown to love, and obviously I hope regeneration projects manage to improve the city's lot. But hope is no substitute for seeing things as they are and once you remove the rose-tinted regeneration spectacles it seems the development is guided by a dollop of wishful thinking.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s cabinet today approved the contract with developer Realis Estates.
Under the terms of the agreement, Realis Estates will take forward the development of a new department store, a wide range of new shops, cafés, restaurants, vibrant public spaces, a multi-screen cinema, an hotel and improved parking.
Realis Estates and the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership (NSRP) will also establish a joint venture arrangement to build a modern bus station and will work together to build the main shopping centre development. The current bus station stands on the East West Centre redevelopment site
Designed by internationally renowned architects Benoy, the redeveloped East West Centre will provide 75,000 square metres of floor space, revitalise Stoke-on-Trent city centre and tempt shoppers back from cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. It is forecast that the new development will create thousands of new jobs as well as providing a significant and sustained boost to the local economy.
Realis Estates and Stoke-on-Trent City Council will now work together to assemble all the land needed for the shopping centre. This is likely to include the use of compulsory purchase orders. Realis Estates will also seek detailed planning permission and continue to identify potential tenants. Realis Estates anticipates the redeveloped centre will open in late 2014.
The big problem is this. When Hanley (for outsiders, the city centre) already has one shopping complex with empty stores, and there are closed shops dotted about how can the city sustain a new shopping development? In the absence of the large manufacturing base that gave the Potteries its name, where are Stokies going to get the money to spend in the new place? New low paid jobs in the cafes of the development will not sustain the new low paid jobs in the clothes shops, and vice versa. There will be no closed virtuous circuit that will fuel economic growth.
Then there's an unintended side effect of regeneration. The new development will pull shops from the existing Potteries Centre and the High Street to the prestige build. It is regeneration that will prettify one end of town at the expense of another. Why would Next and Disney and Lush stay in a functional but 20 year old shopping centre when the fancy one down the way is offering them attractive introductory rents?
Have these issues been addressed? If so they haven't been done so publicly. At a trades council meeting earlier in the year this was put to the then Labour group leader. Let's say the answer was far from reassuring. It looks very much like "build it and they will come" from where I'm sitting.