Last night I dreamt I went to Camberley againPosted: February 8, 2011
Regrettably, however, it was no dream.
Camberley is a commuter town on the Hampshire/Surrey borders, in an area with strong army connections. 35 miles from central London, it is part of a strung-out exurbia which runs north from Aldershot through Farnborough, Camberley itself, Bracknell, Wokingham and into Reading. You can drive from one end to the other without seeing too many fields, but also without ever feeling that you have actually arrived anywhere.
The post-war growth in these towns was caused by the necessity for residential developers to jump over the green belt. London stopped expanding, and the new town movement encouraged greenfield development – both in proper New Towns like Bracknell, but also in many other existing small towns. This area was particularly attractive, assisted by easy rail links into London and, later, good motorway links too. Thus, exurbia grew, swallowing the old towns it covered, but doing so in a less committed way than, say, the Metropolitan Railway in northern Middlesex between the wars.
What we have today, therefore, is a series of small town centres surrounded by prosperous housing (and some less prosperous estates); employment is in London or locally in financial services, distribution or government agencies. Everything is very low key.
So, given all this prosperity, clean air and easy communications, how come the centre of Camberley is so dire?
In the 50s-60s, a pedestrianised shopping precinct was laid out in the centre of the town. It was open air, the architecture was unremarkable Developers’ Modern, and it fitted tolerably well with the existing high street.
In the early 90s, however, a madness seized the town, and the precinct was roofed-in and over-clad in Developers’ PoMo. All of the architectural gew-gaws were literally stuck on to the existing buildings (OK, I simplify, but Tony Robinson would enjoy picking it all apart), and the centre of town suddenly looked and felt more like a series of corridors at a badly designed swimming pool. And of course, when the mall is closed, the doors are shut and locked, and what was an integral part of the town centre becomes a sealed capsule at its heart – http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/leisure/entertainment/Shopping.htm.
At the same time, car ownership has increased, leading to ever more baroque traffic management schemes, and the concentration of chain retailers into the mall (see http://www.themall.co.uk/my-mall/camberley/index.aspx) has sucked the oxygen out of the surrounding streets, which go all the way from run-down to semi-derelict, with a great many vacant units.
To finish the job, a vast Tesco/M&S superstore (“the Meadows”) opened on the outskirts of the town in the 80s, and as Tesco Extra has grown ever more totalitarian in its ranging, the need to go into town at all has diminished.
I wrote, a day or two ago, about the growth of the big centres, and how major chains no longer need as many stores as they used to in order to cover the country adequately. All of this begs some interesting questions about the future for centres like Camberley – and Farnborough, Aldershot etc. The quality of chain-store (particularly fashion) provision in Reading, or Guildford, or even Basingstoke, is so much stronger than in the exurbs; but the population is spread across thousands of low-density acres, making the development of true local shopping (per suburban London) impossible.
Oh, and more customers are buying their stuff online now. Have I mentioned that before?
So, my aim today is not to rile the good people of Camberley, but rather to ask the broader question: who in local government is seriously thinking about how these town centres – and there are scores of Camberleys across the country – are going to develop in the changing world? They may not have record shops or book shops in the future – but what will they have? And how will the shoppers, citizens, electors derive the very best benefit from their town centres? I’d be very happy to join a think-tank on this one…