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Halifax Town Centre Regeneration

From Tony Weekes

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Some critical thoughts on the proposed regeneration of Halifax Town Centre

I have never lived in Halifax, but I have known the town for over 30 years. In recent years I have made a number of overnight visits. I have attended a meeting of the Antiquarian Society, visited the Dean Clough Galleries and taken lunch in the café at that site. I have admired the built heritage, while regretting the shabby state into which some of it has fallen.

It is from these experiences that I am dismayed to see that uncertainty has arisen yet again over the future of the Central Library and Borough Archive. But this time, it runs a bit deeper. The issue is now about 'attracting the big stores' and the needs of developers to have access to land around Northgate.

My main sources of information comes from a series of articles published in the Halifax Evening Courier during  the week ending Saturday 29 January, together with some information from the Don’t Bulldoze our Library (DBOL) website.

As an outside observer, several thoughts occur to me.  The first arises from a number of visits I have made to the Netherlands in recent years, the last being in the summer of 2010.  Looking at town centre regeneration in that country, I am struck by the quality of what I see.  The challenges to the planners are very apparent: this is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with much of it below sea level.  Asking my good friend and host how - in his experience - the cities retained a certain aesthetic quality, he replied that the local authorities take the lead in planning.  The question to those who live there is “What do we want our city to be?”. Only when some consensus has emerged are developers invited to make proposals.

I have insufficient knowledge of the Dutch language to verify my friend’s view of how it is done, but he is a qualified landscape architect whose working life was in the Netherlands public sector.  He also knows Britain and Ireland well, and understands my unease when I see how we do it in these off-shore islands of Europe.

This brings me to perhaps my main point.  Reading what I have available to me about the regeneration of Halifax town centre, I am struck by how ‘closed’ the debate seems to be.  Those who see ‘shopping’ - especially ‘big stores’ as the answer - seem to overlook among many other things the present (and continuing) economic crisis and the (inevitable) consequences of how it is being managed.  Economic instability (particularly with respect to employment) and access to spending power seem likely to be a feature of life for many people for some time into the future.

But this is not all.  The proposals - insofar as they have been described - seem to envisage that Halifax will, when the work is completed, look like anywhere else.  Because Huddersfield, Bradford, ... has these stores, so must Halifax, in order (it is claimed) that Halifax remains “competitive”.

Competition - and its derivatives - is a word which needs to be treated with caution.  By its nature, it implies winners and losers. In sport, that may not matter - it’s what happens, and the fortunes of football clubs rise and fall. In town centre regeneration, it’s more serious. An inheritance of unoccupied shop units, each with its melancholic agent’s board inviting contact from ‘interested parties’ is not something to be wished for.

But, the supporters of shopping will, no doubt, say "that’s not the outcome we’re predicting!".  Well, predicting the future is a difficult business.  No one - not even distinguished economists - seem to have predicted the economic crisis which we now have.  But prediction segues into what can only be described as wild guesswork when we are faced with statements such as that offered by Mr Gregg (in the Courier, 28th January): "...over the next 15 years Halifax will need to more than double that available space just to retain its existing market share”.  Come, come, Mr Gregg: can you really see that far into the future ...until the year 2026?  However sceptical one feels about issues such as climate change and resource depletion, the world (and Halifax) will be a very different place by then.  Play the game the other way if you wish: looking forward from 1995, could you (or anyone) have said what the world would be like by the end of the first decade of the 21st Century?

There are other “arguments” being offered - again, I use the word argument cautiously.  A contribution to the Courier (from Brian Coates on 29th January) quoting Mr Ian Gray, director of economy and environment, says that “ ... Primark would be the catalyst for other stores to move into Halifax. Currently there is 68 per cent retail leakage out of the borough. This means, on average, for every £100 spent by Calderdale residents, only £32 is spent here.” [Emphasis added].

Like so much in this (undoubtedly vigorous) debate, one could question where (and from what time) this remarkably accurate figure came.  But let us allow it; what is important to bear in mind is that, were this particular leakage to be reduced by bringing in large stores, there would still be leakage.  Big stores use some of their takings to pay their staff, and that money - to some extent - will be re-spent in the Borough.  But much more will be transferred to head office, to pay directors and shareholders. I pass no judgement on this - it’s simply a statement of how multi-branch retail businesses work.

There is, though, another sort of leakage.  If money is spent in the (newly acquired) big stores by citizens of the Borough, it cannot be used to support the traders who are already here. Primark specialises in inexpensive clothing; so do some of the traders in the indoor market.  What of the effect of this leakage on their livelihoods?

More could be said about the ongoing debate. This is but one small contribution, addressing some aspects which I think I understand.  I am willing to contribute more.  But (almost) enough already.  What bothers me about what is going on - both in Britain and in Northern Ireland where I have lived since 1999 - is the narrowness of the debate about our public life. Although our politicians constantly speak about  the value of ‘choice’ in our lives, I see no real choices in what is being put before the citizens of Halifax.  It is presented as either ‘decline’ or ‘big stores’.  No mention is made of the wide range of other human needs: we are, it seems, no more than recreational shoppers (and increasingly threatened with inadequate financial resources even to do this).

There is also an unseemly rush.  Why must a decision in favour of (or against) Primark be rushed through? The outcome will last for years.  Options beyond ‘big stores’ exist. 

Please, citizens, insist that these are also presented - and debated with equal vigour!


Tony Weekes, one time lecturer in the department of Economics, University of York and presently honorary associate, School of Environmental Planning, Queen’s University of Belfast


From Kate C

Thursday, 24 February 2011

That was an utterly fantastic contribution, thank you for sharing that with us.