Maidenhead, Queen of Shops

As I walked up the High Street in Maidenhead today I was pleasantly impressed to see a small market there, with a greengrocers, deli and crafts stall. It seems to be a growing trend, with a number of Welsh towns reviving or extending their on-street markets.

Among the stalls was an information stand, giving out leaflets (scanned copy of the one I picked up) and information on the new Kings Triangle development, which is being promoted as the solution to the town centre’s current woes.

The improvements are long overdue. Despite being the main pedestrian corridor linking the train station to the town centre the space is currently occupied by a mix of fast food outlets, chain pubs, low-rise offices, the monstrous Broadway multi-storey car park and a load of derelict land.

But as James Farquharson points out in a considered response on his blog today, the plans in their current form are based on the crucial assumption that retail development will provide a panacea to town centre decline, and at a time when analysts predict a continued retail slump for many years to come.

What I noticed, looking at the glossy leaflet, was the new shopping streets on the plan. Besides Debenhams, I wonder who will occupy the new spaces. Perhaps existing businesses will move in from other parts of the town centre, but in that case the development is merely shifting the problem from one place to another.

With the existing commercial centre around the High Street already having a number of vacant premises, a lot of new businesses will be needed not only to fill those but the new premises too. That would mean drawing in a large number of new visitors to Maidenhead, and with Reading, Wycombe and London providing plentiful competition, one wonders to what extent this is possible in reality.

The remarkable thing about all these towns (possibly London aside) is the degree to which they compete with each other, each trying to out-do the others in the quest for growth and economic expansion, but contributing little in architectural merit or in any general character. The same is true of my local area in Ealing, with various developments (some approved, some not) constantly being touted as the magic pill that will stop people heading to Westfield (15 minutes away on the tube) to do their shopping. We’ll see.

As James points out, something else is needed. Ealing at least has a number of green and open spaces at it’s centre which act as a hub for entertainment events, draw people in and above all create a unique sense of community. Maidenhead, sadly, has few of these, and those that it does have are mainly out of the way, separated off from the rest of the town by the almost impassable A4 bypass. Like the Broadway car park, another great 1960s planning failure.

So, back to my starting point. Street markets are on the up, and provide a great way for the entrepreneurial outfits that the Government is trying to encourage to generate revenue, without the long-term commitments of leasing premises and paying business rates. What better way to encourage this at a local level than to create a new space in Maidenhead, a single open space where Maidenhead can define it’s own unique social, cultural and of course commercial heart.

The alternative is a web of near-identical shopping streets, occupied by the usual mix of mobile phone stores, discount stores, fast food outlets and charity shops. With perhaps the odd tree, bit of grass or market stall for decoration. If we’re going to continue on down this route on new developments like this – when more effective and sustainable alternatives exist – then Mary Portis will have her work cut out.

Thanks to Mike Hatfield for pointing out James’s blog post.