When I had my first baby in 2011, I suddenly found myself with more free time than I’d had for years. I used this newly acquired time to explore places in Manchester that I had never been to – despite being utterly broke, my mini adventures with my little mute friend were truly happy days.
One of my favourite places to go to back then, when I wanted a change from Chorlton, was to Stretford Mall. I can hear you laughing, but as someone who can’t really handle the madness of the Trafford Centre (even the Arndale Centre in town is a bit too much for me at times), Stretford offered a more relaxed shopping experience with pretty much all of the shops I regularly needed. I went there for shops which didn’t have branches in Chorlton, such as Wilkos, Argos and New Look, as well as the excellent discounted bookshop where I bought some of my daughter’s most treasured books, and the discounted branded clothes shop where I got most of my partner’s birthday and Christmas presents.
All these shops, and more, have gone from Stretford Mall in the last 5 years. I never visited the centre during its hay day and I know that the Mall was waaaay past its best in 2011, but to me it’s recent decline seems so rapid – every time I visit I notice another yet store has gone. It is one of the starkest examples of what is happening to retail centres up and down the country as shopping habits change and the government continues failing to act on the impact this is having on communities.
It’s hard to believe that when it opened in 1969, Stretford Mall was one of the biggest shopping centres in Britain. This article offers some great history of Stretford Mall, or Stretford Arndale as it was originally called – it’s a great piece, just ignore the bit about Chorlton Precinct – it was written before the CAMhub opened!http://confidentials.com/manchester/stretford-mall-a-portrait-of-a-dying-shopping-centre
I know that the Mall won’t be holding any ‘flower shows, Miss Stretford Pagents and tea dances’ again, but it would be nice to live in a time where all the shop units in Stretford Mall (on both levels!), and all the retail centres like it, were filled and thriving. It frustrates me greatly that thousands of shop units lie empty because of high rent and rates which make it near-impossible to run a long term sustainable business, especially if you are an indy start up. It just feels like a wasted opportunity for so many people.
My fear is I believe that by the time my daughter is a teenager, independent businesses on the High Street will be a thing of the past. But now I am also beginning to wonder if places like Stretford Mall will still exist then as well. Where will the elderly or disabled people, or the tired new mums go when they can’t face going into town? Where will the ‘community hub’ be then?
Chorlton is not immune to the issues which are affecting Stretford Mall, its just that it has a better reputation therefore people are more willing and eager to set up a business here. But it is not easy for anyone – things need to change in order for people to be able to run sustainable long term businesses in suburbs and small towns for the health of both the economy and the community. It should not be as hard as it is to make a small business work on the High Street in any area. Last year an average of 15 shops a day closed down in the UK, and the number of new openings fell to the lowest level in 5 years, leaving 10% of retail units lying empty. Analysts predict this situation to worsen over coming years, with the uncertain Brexit effect not helping matters.
I hope that Stretford Mall finds a way to revive itself, just as I hope that when Chorlton precinct is eventually redeveloped it will still be a home to independent businesses. And I hope that one day the government finally realises that it needs to address the unmanageable business rates issue and make serious changes for the health of the British High Street – and I don’t mean just doing publicity stunts with Mary Portas.
Hopefully one day all towns and cities will be offering opportunities to encourage both shoppers and new traders and the trend of High Street businesses closing down will reverse. But, given the speed in which the decline has happened, particularly in the last 5 years, things need to happen soon to save the essence -or ‘soul’ – of the UK’s town centres. The sad fact is that I fear things won’t change and the decline will continue. I have no idea how long Stretford Mall, and places like it, will last but I’m quite certain things will be very different by the time my daughter is grown up.