“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?

We danced and sang, and the music played in the boomtown”

Those with a more than cursory knowledge of English 2 Tone (and no, I’m not giving any clues as to the content of my Spotify playlists) will immediately have recognised that as the work of The Specials in 1980. And it’s a tune that might spring to mind when reading the latest report on the demise of the British Shopping Centre in yesterday's FT.

It’s a fascinating article, charting the rise and fall (and further fall) of a dream. Shopping centres seemingly became a staple of every provincial town centre from the 1960s onwards – a model inherited from the US. But like certain other American tastes (root beer and corn dogs, anyone?) whilst at first it seemed alluring, the charm has faded. 

Our shopping centres were once cathedrals to retail. One or two anchor tenants were secured with nominal rents, and smaller chains and independent outlets rushed to nestle alongside them with the seemingly guaranteed footfall that would follow. But just as the anchor tenants acted as beacons to draw in footfall in their heyday, when they lost their own way, their own failure infects the whole centre. If your prime asset is shuttered and looking unloved, all of the surrounding outlets suffer by association. It’s no coincidence that those shopping centres which have taken the hardest hits often had an anchor in a fallen giant, such as Debenhams, or one of Philip Green’s Arcadia outlets.

Some of the quotes in the article make grim reading – one 20-year tenant in Croydon's Whitgift Centre speaks of opening up as “just not worth it any more” unless they’re unable to get a further discount from their landlord. And the accompanying stats show why. The FT quotes CoStar whose research shows that 83 percent of department stores (the archetypal ‘anchor’) closed their shutters for good between 2016 and 2021. And even when national spending has just recovered to pass its pre-pandemic level, shopping centre spending remains down 25%.

So, what’s the way forward?

Councils are as keen as landlords to find new models that will breathe life into the sector. And perhaps one answer can be found in the very original concept of the mall as the “city without cars”. For five decades or more, retail squeezed all other tenants out of the shopping centres. But just as those habits have evolved, perhaps there are opportunities in replacing redundant retail space with residential, workspace and leisure facilities? Councils such as Wigan are pointing one potential way forward, partnering with a regeneration specialist, Cityheart, for a £135m redevelopment of the town-centre “Galleries” shopping centre. The plan still includes retail, but it is very much a mixed-use approach, with leisure (a bowling alley, cinemas and minigolf course) as well as nearly 500 new homes. And Wigan aren’t alone – there are about 60 similar council sponsored schemes pursuing similar approaches across the country.

Because as The Specials also said – it’s time to stop the messing around, better think of the future...