Published: 00:01, 09 July 2014
The heartbreak shown when major stores shut up shop shows people still care about their town centres.
The tricky bit is working out how to get retailers to stay.
A 93-year-old grandmother summed up the mood after Marks and Spencer announced proposals to close its store in Gravesend last month.
“If this goes it’s a ghost town, like other towns,” said Vera Purll of St Benedicts Avenue, who has been shopping there since 1930.
“This is the only one between Bluewater and Hempstead Valley. It’s heartbreaking, when you’ve been born and bred in the town.”
The shock announcement of M&S’ potential exit is a major blow to the town, which has £120m development plans for its Heritage Quarter due to get under way later this year.
Council leader Cllr John Burden said: “It’s a big surprise because Tesco are in the middle of a £2m refurbishment of its store and Debenhams is also in the middle of a refurbishment so all the big players are reinvesting in Gravesend.”
Despite such proposed investment the department store felt its town centre store was no longer viable, instead focusing efforts on larger outlets at Bluewater and Hempstead Valley.
It is little wonder, then, that councillors in Maidstone felt the need to protect their town centre when Land Securities put forward plans for an £85m shopping centre at Newnham Court.
The shopping centre would have created more than 1,000 jobs just off Junction 7 of the M20 and included a Debenhams and Waitrose but councillors felt the risk to the town centre’s prosperity was too great.
“There are sites in the town which Debenhams could locate to,” said Paul Alcock, chairman of Maidstone Town Centre Management and former manager of the Mall Chequers centre.
“Why would you create lots of retail on the edge of the town when you have lots of gaps in the in the town?”
Councillors said they rejected the Newnham Court plans because it failed a “sequential test” outlined by government.
It says development should always favour town centres first, moving outside only when there is no other suitable option.
However, turning theory into practice has not been so simple.
“If the council can develop a thriving easily accessible town centre then retailers will want to go in there but it is a chicken and egg scenario,” said Nick Yandle, chief executive of property developers Gallagher Group.
“You cannot force retailers there if their model is to be on the edge of a town.”
Gallagher Group received full planning permission last month to begin work on a hotel next to Newnham Court at Eclipse Park, which had been given outline permission three years earlier.
Eclipse Park is already home to offices for asb law, DHA Planning, accountancy firm DSH, and Orbit Housing Association and Next at Home opens this year.
Mr Yandle said: “These retailers know their markets and know their brand.
"They have very highly paid people who develop strategies and they decide whether town-centre or edge-of-town development is best.
“If you have a large development site I imagine they like the idea of drawing people in from neighbouring towns which suggests motorway access.
“My wife likes Maidstone town centre but says it is often just as quick to drive to Bluewater where there is greater choice.
“When people have a choice they go to the easier option.
“My hometown of Dartford is an example of what happens when a town loses investment and goes on a downward spiral.”
Days after Newnham Court was rejected, a planning application was submitted for a redevelopment of the Maidstone East station in the town centre to include a large supermarket, smaller shops and restaurants.
“A lot of people say rejecting Newnham Court is a missed opportunity because they think we have missed the chance to have a Debenhams and Waitrose,” said Mr Alcock.
“Now we have an opportunity to get them in the town.
"We have got the Maidstone East development now which has put in a planning application, which could house retail.
“People do want to shop in Maidstone.
"It has the biggest retail area of anywhere in Kent barring Bluewater and boasts lots of independent traders. There is also good heritage.
“Our priority is to keep the town strong and fight anything away which will stop that. Our priority is to keep the town strong.”
The edge-of-town shopping debate may not yet be over for Maidstone.
Land Securities’ head of retail development Lester Hampson says the FTSE 100 company is not ruling out going to central government to appeal the decision to reject Newnham Court.
He said: “This is a lost opportunity for Maidstone.
“Together with the Maidstone Medical Campus project on adjoining land, our two schemes would have created around 4,000 jobs for the county town but councillors have turned their backs on that. That’s a great shame.”
"Our priority is to keep the town strong and fight anything away which will stop that..." - Maidstone Town Centre Management's Paul Alcock
“We will now take time to consider our options before making any final decisions on the redevelopment of Newnham Court Shopping Village.”
Meanwhile, the consultation on M&S’ closure in Gravesend is expected to run to the end of August but the department store says it remains committed to town centres.
It has 232 full line M&S stores on high streets across the country, with a store in Sevenoaks set to become the newest addition.
The company plans to open 150 new Simply Food stores over the next three years, including high street locations.
It believes the future of shopping lies in offering convenience, whether that is online, mobile, at large regional centres or on the high street.
A spokesperson for Marks & Spencer said: “We are closely managing our store estate to ensure it is fit for the future of M&S and, after much consideration, we have taken the decision to propose the closure of our store on New Road.
“We hope the store’s customers will continue to shop with us at our new look stores in Bluewater and Hempstead Valley and on our new website, M&S.com. All colleagues will be offered positions in other M&S stores.”
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