The Bickerstaffe Record

Cotterill on the Council

Skelmersdale Town Centre – a win or wasted opportunity?

04.25.08 | Comment?

This is a bit beyond my usual very local territory, but it’s not every day you get plans for a new town centre three or four miles away (and if plans go ahead for Everton moving to Kirkby, we’ll have two new ones to deal with, and I’ll post something separate on that as it has more immeidate consequences for Bickerstaffe Ward).  So I’ve been taking a keen interest, including helping out where I can with Labour’s local consultation work on the plans (the main plan can be seen on the glossy Council leaflet produced for the consultation.

Labour councillors’ formal consultation response has not yet been fully agreed (the Council cunningly held the consultation period at election time, when councillors tend to spend more time on doorsteps than in meetings), so I can’t post that response here just yet, but I thought I’d post my own response.   Here’s what I said to the planners:

 First, I think there is a good to deal to commend in the plans as they stand.  The broad idea of a high street going South-North and linking two main features of current footfal l- ASDA and concourse – and following/integrating with the line of the Tawd make sense.   

However,  while this broad layout has become ‘accepted wisdom’ now, it is worth remembering that it is not the only possible layout.  Were I a town masterplanner, I am sure I could make a case for a broad East-West ‘sweep’ down the hill from the Birch Green, with a high street area moving down to and utilising panoramic views of the Tawd, with an emphasis on attractive bridging, and efforts to screen from view in this setting the less attractive ‘block’ elements (ASDA and concourse) while retainnig functional links and creating hidden parking space.  This orientation would, importantly, have reduced the purported need for demolition.  

As a a general point, my view is that the ‘paradigm’ of the North-South high street was set much too early in the process, and has not allowed non-town planners to conceptualise different layouts.  Conversely, the retention of radically different layouts for some time would have engendered much greater public debate and subsequent innovation.  As such, the overall process has failed the people of Skelmersdale – not that they may lot get a good town centre, but that they may just have been denied the opportunity to get the very best for themselves.

The process undertaken has been largely determined by the Council’s subservient relationship to the developers.  I accept  that, as the primary (but not sole) financial investor, they should have a signifcant say.  However, by allowing the developer to dictate the overriding importance of maximising retail floorspace, the Council is allowing a potentially vital part of the original vision (developed during the Broadway Mallion contract) to be lost.  This vision was about a town centre, not a shopping experience!  The lack of ‘build in’ of public space and civic amenity, which Labour’s consultation process highlighted, means that we are more likely to get a town centre like St Helens – functional in that it joins bus station to shops, but hardly inspiring and a place where people would choose to meet unless out shopping -rather than somewhere like the URBIS building area of Manchester.  

The thought I keep coming back to is that Victorian town centres e.g. Huddersfield, Harrogate, even Melton Mowbray, while established when liberal economy thinking was the norm and the ‘market’ dictated much, still had public and civic space as the key driver for the overall design of the centre.  In Skelmersdale, this vision of a town centre that people might actually want to go to just to be in, when not shopping (or drinking alcohol) appears to have been lost somewhat at the moment, or at the very least remains unassured.  At a time when we may be entering a period of retail downturn (and there will be others in the future), this loss – and the prospect of boarded up shops and few people in the new ‘town centre’ does not appeal.


There is still time to rectify some (though perhaps now not all) of these concerns, by providing appropriate assurance in the final Supplementary Plannning Dcoument and planning the detail with the original vision in mind.  I hope this time will be well used.

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