On the eve of the publication of High Street, a new book he has co-authored with Lucy Montague and Victoria Payne, David Rudlin tells the story of how Barnsley almost became a Tuscan hill town
Twenty years ago, Barnsley was feeling down on its luck. It’s mines had closed, the population was falling and it was the 16th most deprived district in the country. The council made a call to the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward and Alan Simpson, head of the agency’s Renaissance Towns Programme, said that he knew just the person Barnsley needed.
That person was the late Will Alsop who, when told at an initial meeting that the vision should be to put Barnsley on the itinerary of every visitor to the UK alongside places like Durham and York, responded “fucking hell we have our work cut out then!”
Some months later council leader Steve Houghton and David Kennedy then director of development were invited to the town’s best restaurant for a preview of the strategy. After a couple of bottles of red wine, Alsop explained his thinking.
The vision, published in 2003, proclaimed that Barnsley should become a “21st century market town”. The report is full of “step changes” and “fundamental rethinks”, suggesting that the town will be home to “lawyers, carpenters, doctors, plumbers, stockbrokers, train drivers, journalists, green grocers, poets, builders and artists”. All a slightly more poetic version of the vacuous boosterism found in many regeneration strategies, but it was only the start.
The hilltop town hall inspired Alsop to suggest that Barnsley should be a “Tuscan hill town”. It would have a compact town centre surrounded by beautiful, productive countryside. He proposed a “living wall” of buildings to encircle the centre made up of amorphous buildings, many on stilts, and capped with a rooftop park.
There was a certain nervousness on the part of the council
All new development would be located within the wall beyond which the urban sprawl would “slowly dissipate” (as in somehow disappear to be replaced with fields). The circular wall became a halo, and it was suggested that, as a first step, a halo of light should be projected into the sky above the town to symbolise its rebirth.
There was a certain nervousness on the part of the council as the great and the good filed into the town meeting. The presentation was made in inimitable Will Alsop style and when it finished there was quiet as the chairman of the market traders got to his feet. “I think…” he started, followed by a long pause while the room held its breath… “Steve Houghton (the council leader) is to be congratulated”.
As David Kennedy recalls, “it was so off the wall that it bypassed knotty issues like parking and market stalls” and tapped straight into the town’s pride, engendering a sense of optimism about the possibility of change. Yorkshire Forward even allocated money to realise the halo of light, although air traffic control concerns could never quite be overcome.
Of course, none of the Alsop proposals were ever built. The history of what happened next is told in our book and involved many set backs and false starts. Yorkshire Forward funded the purchase of the Metropolitan Centre, a huge modernist complex of shops, market, multi storey car park and office block.
Two sets of developers were appointed and subsequently pulled-out, so that by 2014 the council found themselves owners of a run-down complex of buildings looming over a town centre where expectations had been raised.
A new director of regeneration, David Shepherd, spent time talking to other councils with stalled retail schemes. As he told us, councils were getting the blame for schemes over which they had little control and were being “hoodwinked by a commercialised model that was using viability as an excuse to justify sub-standard schemes”.
Risky stuff in an era when ill fated commercial development has brought down Croydon and more recently Woking councils
Barnsley decided to do it themselves; put up the funds, take the risk and call the shots. By March 2017 they had agreed a new scheme rebranded as the Glassworks with £180 Million of funding and borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board.
It is one of a handful of new retail schemes built in recent years – just as the original market halls were built by municipal authorities, Barnsley’s shopping centre and market has been built as a public asset for the public good.
The council has even factored-in ongoing subsidy for running costs, accepting that it is unlikely to make a commercial return. Instead the council sees it as “a scheme with a 300-year business plan”, intended as “an investment in the future and the pride of the town”.
Risky stuff in an era when ill fated commercial development has brought down Croydon and more recently Woking councils. But our conclusion in the book is that it is very much the future of town centre development.
20 years after Alsop, a new indoor market is thriving, a new library/community hub called the Lightbox has been completed on a new square and a new shopping arcade called the Glass Works has been completed. What is more our data shows that the retail vacancy rate in the centre is 2% below the average of our case studies. It is no great stretch to say that the halo of confidence generated by Alsop made all of this happen.
David Rudlin is director of Urban Design at BDP and visiting professor at Manchester School of Architecture.
High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis will be published by RIBA Publishing in 2023