"We'll get that away," says the council officer about a proposed out-of-town retail centre on the site of a closing leisure centre in South Bradford. So the Odsal District Centre is the future of that part of town? For how long? And is this really the future?
I wonder if this is a false hope brought on by the prospect of a capital receipt (and a pig-headed refusal to consider the site for housing) rather than a genuine engagement with economic reality. And Bradford isn't alone in all this - up and down the country local councils are buying up retail centres, either in the name of regeneration or, more commonly, investment income.
Here's some reality from the US courtesy of the always excellent John Sanphillippo:
This new retail plaza on the side of a Northern California freeway isn’t adding needed capacity. It’s cannibalizing existing retail sales from older shopping centers. There’s a limit to how many shoe stores and kitchenware shops the area population can support. Online sales are cutting in to already slim margins. It won’t be long before this place is hollowed out and half vacant, not least because the chain stores will be offered special incentives to relocate to a new place a few miles away. That’s when city officials and developers will hatch a public private partnership to turn the venue into a “technology park” to lure in some other heavily subsidized scheme that will also prove economically wobbly.Right now, investment in new retail capacity, other than for discount supermarkets, is a monumentally stupid idea - even if you've an end user lined up. Just look at what's happening in UK retail - not because of slow economic growth but because the market is changing fast. So far in 2018, 14 listed retailers have failed, 1,236 stores have closed their doors, and 13,176 employees have lost their jobs - in four months. And there's more to come if House of Fraser, New Look and Debenhams performance is anything to go by.
Just down the road in the same town is a premium outlet mall that, not too long ago, was the guarantied-to-succeed cash cow favored by municipal planners. But these things just don’t perform well beyond the first tenant lifecycle, particularly when there’s a parade of similar establishments for a hundred miles in every direction. Meanwhile, this failing mall is in a location with a critical housing shortage. The median home price here is $700,000 and very few homes are on the market. Median rent is $2,900 if you can find a vacancy. Most people can’t.
Out in the real world the change appears to be accelerating - "go to Amazon," my wife's friend tells her on a chance encounter at the garden centre searching for outdoor furniture, "they're much cheaper and they've got more choice." The triumph of mail order is almost complete, every day a stream of delivery vans comes through our little estate of thirty-odd houses and flats - clothes, food, furniture, everything a home could want delivered conveniently to the door. And all this is without counting the folk who, for their convenience, collect from Cullingworth's chemist or post office.
It's not that shopping is dead - we're shopping more than ever - but that we can shop with a glass of wine in hand from our sofa while muting the adverts on the telly or pausing the Netflix series we're watching. Why - given all this - would people want to drag themselves to a load of cheap sheds thrown up in suburban Bradford? The retail the will work is that which offers something we can't get from our sitting room - events, socialising, entertainment, reward - and that which is additional to a destination - the shop at the museum, the little boutique of handmade clothes by public square, the cheese stall or deli in some space near the popular restaurant.
What matters, given convenience is now an app on our phone, is leisure and pleasure, place and space. And, in no known universe are out-of-town retail sheds any kind of pleasure-led place, a destination for a trip out. People aren't going to say, "let's go to Odsal Distrct Centre it's so much fun there", yet because of an obsession with short-term value that is what we get. And sadly, in a decade or so, Bradford (and lots of other places) will be asking what to do with a half empty and increasingly redundant retail centre - just as we are with the crumbling district centres build in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.