Retail therapy has long been a British pastime but do we need more city centre shopping complexes and will they boost our towns and cities? Chris Bond reports.
ANYONE who has walked through the centre of Leeds recently can’t fail to have noticed, and probably been impressed by, the new Trinity development that is rapidly reshaping the city skyline.
The ambitious £350m project was described by one national newspaper last month as “the largest project of its kind in western Europe” and the firm behind the scheme, Land Securities, has announced that it will open in March next year.
Trinity Leeds will have a million square feet of space with 120 new shops, as well as restaurants, bars and cafes and the biggest Everyman cinema in Britain. It will propel Leeds above Manchester in the English retail league table, taking the city from sixth to third position behind London’s West End and Birmingham.
Speaking yesterday, Andrew Dudley, development director for Trinity Leeds, said the scheme would usher in “a new era of world class entertainment and culture” for the city.
If that was not enough, work is also due to start in 2014 on the nearby Eastgate development, which will include a flagship John Lewis store, as well as a number of other high end brands, six restaurants and a 600 space multi-storey car park.
Shoppers already flock to Leeds from across the north of England beyond and these mammoth schemes will no doubt reinforce the city’s reputation as a major retail destination. But they also bring into focus what we want from our city centres and whether we’re happy to have them turned into giant multipurpose malls.
There is also the lingering question of the economic downturn and the squeeze on people’s wallets, not to mention the rise in online shopping as more people prefer to shop from the comfort of their own homes. The recession has claimed some big name retail casualties in the last few years and has left high streets up and down the country struggling to fill the empty premises.
In Sheffield and Bradford it’s been a story of what hasn’t happened, rather than what has. Sheffield’s city centre was to have been transformed by the Sevenstone retail regeneration scheme, but developer Hammerson had to put the project on ice due to the downturn, although it is expected to reveal details of a new scaled-down plan this autumn.
Over in Bradford they are pinning their hopes on the resurrection of the stalled Westfield shopping centre that left a gaping hole in the city centre. Buildings in the Broadway area of the city were demolished eight years ago to make way for the development but the scheme was mothballed in 2009 and part of the site was turned into an urban garden. But Westfield says its mall is back on track with a revised scheme and it recently announced that Marks and Spencer and Next had both been signed up to join Debenhams.
With so many big projects either already underway or in the pipeline there is a lot riding on their success. Mark Goldstone, head of business representations and policy at the Leeds Chamber of Commerce, believes the Trinity Leeds development will be a huge benefit to the city.
“Leeds has slipped slightly down the retail rankings over the last four or five years because there wasn’t enough of the right sort of retail floor space available. But I think the opening of Trinity Leeds will bring new life to a part of the city centre that was tired looking and dreary,” he says.
It’s impossible to talk about the modern retail world without mentioning the internet and it’s been claimed that as much as 20 per cent of shopping could soon be done online. “People’s shopping habits have changed but it’s not going all online. People are mixing how they shop so they might look online and buy in store and vice versa. They aren’t spending in the same way they used to but this will bounce back in the longer term as the economy picks up.”
The way we use city centres has changed, too. Nowadays they aren’t just about shopping and Mr Goldstone points out that the percentage of restaurant and leisure space at Trinity Leeds will be around 20 per cent, rather than the usual 10 per cent found at similar schemes. “Trinity has also committed to extended opening hours across their scheme, which in turn may encourage other city centre businesses to do likewise creating a more vibrant early evening environment.”
Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, also believes that the Trinity development and the proposed Eastgate scheme will have a positive impact on the city. “Trinity is critical to the future prosperity of Leeds city centre as a shopping destination,” he says. “The question is what happens to the other shops on the high street and is there a risk we will have too many shops? And that’s difficult to answer.”
There is also the question of whether all these shopping and retail complexes are sustainable at a time when the economy has flatlined and many people are feeling the pinch and don’t have the same kind of money they perhaps had five or six years ago. “People do have limited money to spend and if they spend it one place it means they can’t spend it elsewhere,” says Dr Grady.
“Leeds appears to be thriving but if you look across at Bradford, which has a big hole in the ground, then its shopping offer is poor by comparison and we can see that Leeds has benefitted from this with people travelling there from Bradford.”
So while Leeds and other big cities like Manchester and Birmingham seem to be flourishing with retailers and shoppers queuing to go there, the picture is perhaps less rosy for some other places. “Leeds is likely to prosper at the expense of smaller towns and cities and the question is does somewhere like Wakefield, as a smaller city, have a sufficient catchment area to compete?”
It’s an interesting point and while shopping malls aren’t everyone’s cup of tea Patrick Clift, of the British Property Federation (BPF), points out that, on average, for every £1 spent on city centre construction projects it generates a total of £2.84 in GDP.
“New shopping centres do bring economic benefits and one of the reasons why they are still popular is they meet retailers demands. If you go to one built 35 years ago it will probably seem quite dated because it doesn’t offer the facilities that people want now. But shopping centres have always needed updating and improving.”
Which is why modern retail complexes are trying hard to keep up with customers’ ever changing tastes and habits. Land Securities provides free Wi-Fi at all its malls and large digital interactive screens with music, information and games will be dotted around its retail complex in Leeds.
However, not everyone believes that swanky new shopping complexes are going to help improve or revitalize our city centres.
Dan Thompson, director of the Empty Shops Network, would like to see more creative uses for them. “For the big retail stores that want larger premises, then shopping centres make sense because they create a certain shopping experience. However, it doesn’t deal with the huge surplus of shops that aren’t being used. So you have to ask yourself, ‘does somewhere like Leeds really need another shopping centre?’ Probably not,” he says.
“People like shopping in modern shopping centres because they want to shop somewhere that is warm and dry, but the challenge is to find other uses for our city centres although I think high streets need to look and learn from shopping centres,” he says.
“City centres are recreational and social spaces, they’re not just about shopping. There needs to be more on offer, we need art, culture, sport and music to attract people into our cities and once there, they can support the shops,” he says.
“You only have to look around the UK to see the number of struggling or derelict shopping centres to realise that their moment in the sun is often short lived, and that it will be the good independent retailers who will still be here in a hundred years time.”