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Dynamics of Place
The Small Town Center

The shopping centre where the currency is hope ... Commerce has deserted Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre. The latest in our new economics series looks at how the community is filling the gap


Peter Burgess

The alternatives The shopping centre where the currency is hope Aditya Chakrabortty Aditya Chakrabortty Commerce has deserted Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre. The latest in our new economics series looks at how the community is filling the gap • Listen to Aditya Chakrabortty talking about game-changing economic models on The Alternatives podcast Wed 9 May 2018 04.11 EDT Last modified on Wed 9 May 2018 06.21 EDT Shares 204 Comments 279 York Place shopping centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme where the new anchor tenants are a YMCA shop and Cultural Squatters ‘York Place is at the eye of a storm that has either already hit your home town or is looming over it.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian For years, all Mike Riddell has seen in his trade is failure and death. But today he’s at a birth – and all his hope rests on it. A new cafe is opening in the shopping centre he manages and they are throwing a party. Having brought along his wife and mum, 53-year-old Riddell goes into “full-on host mode”, chatting up council officials and swapping elaborate handshakes with teenagers. Yes Sir, I Can Boogie blasts out of the stereo, and some obliging soul in a Spider-Man costume complies. Over all the music and chat, you can hear the free ping-pong tables getting a pounding. Yes sir, clip-clop, clip-clop, I can boogie, clip-clop, clip-clop. Through the big windows, you can see the world Riddell normally faces – and it’s desolate. No babble, no mucking about. Hardly anyone clip-clops past. On this Tuesday lunchtime at York Place, the most tired shopping centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, just outside Stoke, there are few actual shoppers. This is commonsense radicalism: retrieving things discarded by the market, whether shops or goods or people, and giving them a social value After decades building and running shopping centres across the country, Riddell has looked after York Place for two tough years. He let out this same entrance cafe to a can-do pair at the end of 2017. They lasted a few months before giving up, leaving behind the tables, chairs and a stove for whoever else wanted to try their luck. It would be hard for anyone, but especially for Riddell, who is one of life’s enthusiasts. He zooms down conversational detours about his great love, northern soul, and its debt to miners’ culture. And he never wears a poker face. Ask how important this successor cafe is and he admits: “Fucking vital. We need to make this work.” At rock bottom, eight of York Place’s 35 units stood vacant. Still today, bare shopfronts are as obvious as missing teeth. Next door at the fancier Roebuck Centre, the Early Learning Centre, Argos and Primark have all disappeared. Even the charity shops are vanishing. For centuries, Newcastle, as locals call it, has been a bustling market town. Today the market is retreating and the town’s very identity is under threat. York Place is at the eye of a storm that has either already hit your home town or is looming over it. Last year 5,855 shops closed in Britain, the most since 2010. If today is in line with the average, by this evening a net total of five shops will have given up the ghost. Countercoin currency. Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘CounterCoin, it’s like a Tesco Clubcard – except you earn points not by spending, but by doing something for the community.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian In our long post-crash slump, trusted names are either shutting down or cutting back: Woolworths, Comet, Blockbuster, Maplin, Jaeger, Toys R Us, BHS... As British wages continue to flatline, more closures will follow. Just last week, the 169-year-old chain House of Fraser announced plans to begin insolvency proceedings . Advertisement These individual business failures amount collectively to a disease eating away at small-town centres and suburban high streets. It advances in stages: first out are the brand names and chains; then shoppers with cars; after that, in come the charity shops and betting dens. What’s left are ghost towns, abandoned by all bar schoolchildren and pensioners. “Walk around Newcastle at three in the afternoon and a lot of the cafes are empty,” says Andy Arnott, a senior local council officer. “Come five, everybody finishes work and leaves town.” I can see why a retailer already battling Lidl or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos might pass over Newcastle. It’s a bit too close to Stoke to draw its own footfall. It lies in a region built on mining and potteries, where prosperity is now a fading memory. In a country that simply has too many shops, executives have little use for Newcastle and other places, from Dartford to Newport to Dewsbury. What, apart from shopping, will they do now? What, indeed, does a country built on debt and consumption do when it’s exhausted that model? These are questions that Westminster has barely even clocked, let alone tried to answer. The school that shows good food is not just for posh kids Aditya Chakrabortty Aditya Chakrabortty Read more David Cameron got Mary “Queen of Shops” Portas to write a report on “distressed town centres”, then so roundly ignored her proposals that she attacked his “PR campaign”. Since 2011 there have been seven high street ministers in as many years. So weighty have been their interventions, I bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a high street minister. Which leaves it up to towns to fix their own gutted centres, using whatever tools they can find. Dumfries has a “doon toon army” of locals bidding to buy derelict shops. In Newcastle, Riddell and his colleagues already have a plan. They’re turning York Place into a post-shopping centre. Its anchor tenant – the big shop to draw in passing trade – isn’t an H&M or a Wilko, but a charity: the YMCA. Rather than a traditional charity shop, it’s selling jewellery and other work hand-made by local artists, and runs arts and crafts workshops for residents of all ages. And as of last Tuesday, the cornerstone cafe is Cultural Squatters, a social enterprise that markets itself as the “anti-Costa”. It serves instant coffee at £1 a mug alongside those Staffordshire specialities, lobby (stew) and oatcakes. Staff include adult volunteers with learning disabilities. Advertisement Where shopping centres are normally stuffed full of chains, York Place is now a hub for local independents. Where landlords usually demand maximum rent, Riddell has cajoled his London-based client into accepting two non-profits in return for reduced business rates. It’s a pragmatic way of reclaiming commercial space for a community – and it’s buttressed by a reward scheme launched by Riddell and his colleagues at Manchester-based consultancy HometownPlus. Called CounterCoin, it’s like a Tesco Clubcard – except you earn points not by spending, but by doing something for the community. Help out at a YMCA workshop, say, and you’ll get clay tokens that entitle you to bargain off-peak sessions at the neighbourhood bowling alley, or discounts from the local Spar on food about to pass its best-before date. “If we can dole out points for being a zombie consumer at Tesco, why can’t we give points for doing some good in the community?” says Riddell. Cultural Squatters cafe manager Narina Stead and her volunteers on a trip to the local Limelight Lanes bowling alley where they paid using CounterCoin Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘Help out at a YMCA workshop, say, and you’ll get clay tokens that entitle you to bargain off-peak sessions at the neighbourhood bowling alley.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian “Genius,” says Arnott, who plans to add more of the council’s leisure facilities to the scheme. Again, this is commonsense radicalism: retrieving things discarded by the market, whether shops or goods or people, and giving them a social value. That’s true of the abandoned plot now occupied by Cultural Squatters. It’s also true of its founder, Narina Stead, who fixed up her cafe despite a broken arm and torn ligaments. Painting hurt, she admits, but “I’m too busy for a sling”. Q&A Share your stories Show Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate - sent direct to you Read more Now 42, pink-haired Stead cheerfully says: “I’ve lived with some absolute monsters.” She talks of a history of domestic violence, of a broken back two decades ago. Another relationship broke her mental health, forcing her out of work and on to benefits. She used the time to get a first-class English degree, then “boshed out” a master’s, finishing both in three years. Yet in a jobs market as slack as north Staffordshire, it would be an unusual employer who would bother looking past her long-term unemployment to see her brains and stamina. What about the state? A couple of months ago, it was chasing her for bedroom tax. Only Riddell offered her a shot at a business. It’s hard graft that has still to pay, but when she blurts out “This is my baby!”, her pride needs no underlining. Advertisement Pinned to the noticeboard of the York Place offices are not charts of till receipts or footfall – but a graph depicting how many person-hours have been poured into the local community through the shopping centre. However crude, it’s an attempt to measure social value, and I’ll bet 10 CounterCoin that no other mall anywhere in the country charts such a thing. “It’s no ordinary shopping centre. It’s a laboratory,” says Julie Froud, a professor at Alliance Manchester Business School, who is conducting an independent evaluation of York Place. Mike Riddell at York Place shopping centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme Facebook Twitter Pinterest ‘Mike Riddell has looked after York Place for two tough years.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian It lacks investment, as shown by the cluster of buckets to catch leaks in the entrance. The ideas are rough around the edges, and many of those involved are working on goodwill. But at least the centre only has one faraway landlord; activists in Dumfries are having to barter with a number of absentee owners. In this lies a lesson for any opposition party that wants to offer disaffected voters a means of taking back control: make it easier for communities to repossess derelict properties. Most of all, Froud notes: “This is a group of people all trying to make things happen.” And trying to change a broken model. It’s often assumed that this hyper-consumerist culture of debt and spending is intrinsically British – yet it is a recent invention. As late as the 1960s, the historian Frank Trentmann notes in his 2016 book Empire of Things, furniture bought on hire purchase would be delivered in “plain vans” so as to not to shame a family. Then, between the mid-70s and the mid-90s, the number of Britons with credit facilities tripled. With that began the giant boom for the shopping business – including for Riddell, who built malls from Newport to Crewe. He drives me to see one of his last shopping malls, the Grand Arcade in Wigan. It opened in March 2007, “pretty much the same day as Warrington, only 20 miles away, had a massive extension to its shopping centre. The Trafford centre had just had one too. Preston, Chorley – they were all at the same game.” Advertisement Then Britain’s credit system failed. “The banks were like, ‘That umbrella we lent you when it was sunny, can we have it back now it’s raining?’ We had a shopping centre in Wakefield half-built, and the banks stopped the funding.” How a small town reclaimed its grid and sparked a community revolution Aditya Chakrabortty Aditya Chakrabortty Read more Since the company’s huge loans were backed by the partners, Riddell had to hold his own closing-down sale and liquidate almost everything he owned. He went from being worth millions to being tens of millions in debt. The family home was only saved by cash from his father-in-law. He also donated the nine-year-old car we’re now in. “Those bastards in the banking system” are, in his eyes, “drug dealers. They want to get their cocaine out, and they’re bonused up to find people like us. ‘Here, d’you want more stuff?’ Then when the drugs ran out, they came and kicked our doors in and scared our wives.” Now he holds no bank account, and buys precious little. Having been spat out of the debt-consumerist complex, he wants nothing more to do with it. As we park up outside his glory days, he sighs: “Weird, being back here.” The Grand Arcade was built on the site of the Wigan Casino, and there is by the vast cafe a shrine to northern soul: guitars, posters and seven-inch singles. Still, he remembers, local traders hated the mall for sucking the life out of the local high street. Now it has its own voids: both TK Maxx and Monsoon have left. Riddell takes a long, mystified look at the temple he built, deserted at closing time. “Retail,” he finally says. “It’s dead, innit?” • Aditya Chakrabortty is senior economics commentator for the Guardian Topics Regeneration The alternatives Communities Retail industry Social enterprises Economic policy Economics comment

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