Letter from Beeston: How to keep your town centre alive

Simon outside one of the less fortunate shops in Beeston

Simon outside one of the less fortunate shops in Beeston

It would have escaped your notice at the time, but you’ve probably been to Beeston, writes Matt Beestonia. If you’ve ever taken a train up North from St Pancras you would have – albeit briefly – stopped in Beeston before chugging down the track onto Nottingham a couple of miles away.

It’s doubtful that you noticed anything special – and from the train window, you’d be right. But if you were to alight and make your way north into the centre of town, you’d see that we were rather different than your usual suburban town.

A bit of background first: Beeston is a town of around 20,000 that sits on the banks of the Trent, nestled next to the University of Nottingham campus and Wollaton Hall, and as such has a burgeoning middle class as post-graduates find it’s leafy environs a more comfortable place than the inner city areas prefered by undergraduates.

It’s famous for having the head office of Boots; being the birthplace of Sir Paul Smith, home to director Shane Meadows; and rather bizarrely, the last home of soul legend Edwin Starr before his death in 2003. It’s a mix of Labour, Lib Dem and Tory wards, and is in the constituency of Broxtowe, with our MP the infamous neo-Edwina Currie, Health Minister Anna Soubry. Oh, and Gandhi once visited here.

Beeston Square

What sets it aside, however is not these quirks, but something much more immediate and noticable. In the last decade, the town has had imposed on it a series of changes that would normally take a century. A huge Tesco has arrived, taking up a huge chunk of town. A tram system is being built, with demolition orders being thrown about with capricious abandon. And our town square, that presently is all-but derelict, has just been subject to planning squabbles and fights between the developers and the council, finally seems to have a plan submitted that will bring it into the 21st Century. We’ve also just had news that HS2, if it gets the go-ahead, will have a station here.

Such a huge swathe of changes could easily break a town, but something rather wonderful happened. The town decided that they were going to have a say in things.

The 'Bee Man' sculpture on Beeston's High Road

The ‘Bee Man’ sculpture on Beeston’s High Road

The Tesco is a good starting point. Despite campaigns to stop it, Tesco pushed on relentlessly and using it’s legal might, managed to get consent to build. But careful, nuanced campaigning forced them into a series of compromises. Instead of an ugly metal box, a rather prettier timber clad building was built. They were also encouraged to build a car park that could be used by shoppers heading elsewhere, and open up paths to the main strip of shops.

Rather wonderfully, all this has had the effect of enhancing the town: more people use the wealth of independent shops, including three non-chain butchers, two bakers and a greengrocer/fishmonger that has been ran by the same family for over a century.

The imposition of the tram has also caused huge controversy. It’s route takes it down a narrow, long road famous for it’s wealth of independent shops, restaurants and pubs. It was recently announced that the road would have to be closed for 18 months, effectively imposing a death sentence on the street.

Yet the indefatigable nature of Beestonians rose up again, demanded a rethink, and forced NET, the company behind the tram, to reconsider and develop a compromise that minimised the damage done, and compensate for any losses.

An artist's impression of the new Beeston tram

An artist’s impression of the new Beeston tram

Is this ‘people-power’ something unique to my town? I certainly didn’t see it growing up in the eighties when my home , a town three miles from Beeston called Stapleford, was ripped apart by idiotic, short-sighted development schemes. That town is now all but a ghost town, a strip of bookies, pound shops and units for let. Are Beestonian’s special?

I recently held a public meeting with the parties responsible for the changes in our town, in particular the Square, and despite sub-zero temperatures, the school hall I had booked quickly filled up with people eager to get their opinions across. People really cared: demanding more transparency, asking why so much focus in development was on retail rather than the prevailing trend of entertainment and services. They were passionate, demanding and would not allow the panel to slip into corporate-speak. The panel, after 90 minutes of explaining their position, looked distinctly ruffled afterwards.

Would this happen in your town? I hope it would. The public have been subject to decades of their town centres being homogenised and stripped of their individuality, but now feel enough is enough. Effective resistance against chains is growing and protestors have become increasingly sophisticated in resisting the new vast neighbourhood supermarket.

Retail is changing: people are increasingly vexed by chains and going back to independents. This also has the useful of effect of keeping money in the town, going into the back pockets of local owners rather than shareholders with no link to the neighbourhood.

As the internet and superstores suck the life out of High Streets, now is the time to get organised and make a plan. Every town needs a careful, sophisticated vision of how to preserve what is unique, encourage diversity and reallocate land for things that are in demand, such as housing.

It’s time to reclaim the civic space, take back our towns, and make our streets sing again.

  • Many thanks to Matt Beestonia for this guest post. Matt blogs at Beestonia and tweets here. As a teenager, I spent quite a lot of time in Beeston town centre and on a recent visit I realised there were some useful lessons for here in Wandsworth – where the interests of local people can too often be put behind the interests of property developers and large chains can edge out independent shops.
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