I live in Wolverhampton. It’s a city which is often written off as “part of Birmingham” by those who’ve not been here and run down by those who have. Even those of us who live and work here will often moan about the place. Just take a walk around the city centre and its depressing. Wolverhampton is a real victim of the recession but equally it is a victim of over inflated ideas and the promises of false promises. I wouldn’t normally blog about these type of issues as its too close to “day job” for my own good. But I think there’s something that we an all learn from what has emerged today.
Today’s Express & Star has announced a £13m scheme to spruce up parts of the city centre left derelict after the collapse of the City’s Summer Row shopping centre. Now Summer Row was a developer led attempt to bring a string of national chains and more flats to the city centre badged under the banner of regeneration. As the recession began to bite the fading white elephant keeled over and died. It left behind empty and decaying shop units, open space and isolated businesses fighting against a continuing decay. Speaking as someone with some knowledge of planning and regeneration and a resident who tries to use the city’s businesses and facilities where possible, Summer Row can be seen as another poorly considered plan in an opportunist regeneration strategy for the City. There are plenty of examples. The Market Square is isolated from the remainder of the city, an unattractive space which discourages most except the die-hard shopper. The new “transport interchange” looks like it will be merely an expensive bus station (with poor bus service using it) with a fancy pedestrian bridge because neither the finance nor the will of important partners (e.g. Virgin Trains) appears to be lacking. So the Summer Row rescue plan looks more like a sticking plaster than a long-term solution.
By now some of you might be thinking that if this has all been brought about by the recession and government cuts, what else is on the cards. If you read the article it refers to “run-down shops [being] demolished or spruced up, and traders given grants to help boost business“. Again it is scatter gun, it is expenditure rather than investment, it lacks a heart or purpose and it seems much more a gesture than genuine strategy. Instead of a knee-jerk approach the answer lies first and fore-most in looking at what the city does have. It has a long, broad and diverse cultural heritage on which to draw. It gets better gigs (I don’t mean footballers here) than Birmingham and they are more intimate. Its culinary offerings are diverse and interesting. But when it comes to shops we are sadly lagging behind. The solution is not to attract or merely relocate the main chains but to create a diverse shopping experience. The City could start with the market. Whenever I go to another town or city, especailly aborad I always check out the local markets. The are the life of these places. So why not for Wolverhampton. And for those who think we don’t have the resources to support an independent revolution just look to the west of the City and the surrounding villages of Staffordshire and Shropshire. Indeed, there are plenty of suppliers, growers and producers in this area who could supply that change. So why not develop that critical element of the strategy, investing in the City and guaranteeing a future in which we can all share and be proud.
Regeneration of urban areas is like recovering from illness – you face pressure to conform to the “ideal” but finding yourself is the route to positive and lasting change. I really hope someone listens to this plea for my City.