THE Examiner is running a series about the town centre this week. Business experts are giving us their views on how to reverse the decline of central Huddersfield.
Now, for what it’s worth, you can have my two pennies.
If my last trip to the town centre is anything to go by then the place is in serious trouble.
As I parked at the Queensgate multi-storey I noticed there was only one other car on that level.
Jenny and I found that the town centre was so quiet we could hear the birds singing in the trees and the previous night’s takeaway wrappers rustling in the wind.
In the deserted, windswept Piazza, pigeons outnumbered humans 10 to one. Only the pound shop was open for business so we headed down to the Kingsgate instead.
Barely half the shops in Huddersfield’s flagship centre were trading and none of them was doing much business. When I wanted to buy a jumper in Next I had to go and find a member of staff to come to the till.
It was a similar story out on New Street where the coffee shops were among the handful of shops open.
Walking round the town centre was strange, even a little eerie. If you have a morbid fear of crowds – and a phobia of open shops – then it probably would be an ideal day out.
In the interests of accuracy, I should declare that our visit took place on Sunday – i.e. New Year’s Day – when much of the town’s population was tucked up in bed nursing a hangover.
It is, of course, grossly unfair to judge the town centre based on one of the quietest days of the year.
But it is somehow appropriate, as we look forward to 2012, to ask if what I saw on New Year’s Day was actually a glimpse into the town centre’s future.
Will the time come when the centre of Huddersfield looks as much like a ghost town on a typical Saturday afternoon as it does on New Year’s Day?
Perhaps things will never get quite that bad – but who could deny that the town centre is heading in that direction?
In the five years since I moved to Huddersfield I’ve noticed the area within the ring road become noticeably scruffier and quieter.
The recession may be the immediate explanation for the sad parade of empty shops on New Street, but the real causes lie deeper.
More and more of us are avoiding traditional town centres in favour of shopping malls or online retail.
I am in no position to preach. This Christmas, for the first time, I did every last bit of my festive shopping online. No queues, no crowds, no freezing weather – just a few hours in the comfort of my own home in front of a computer screen.
I’m no great fan of places like the White Rose Centre or Meadowhall but I can see why many people prefer them to traditional shopping – free parking, all indoors and less prospect of being harangued by a chugger/Socialist Worker/fundamentalist Christian.
None of this is going to change in the near future. The millions who flock to shopping malls or sit hunched in front of their laptops are not going to stream back to the high street.
Perhaps free parking or better shops would attract some people back to the town centre, but it would be a trickle rather than a flood.
The glory days of the high street are not coming back.
This is not to say we should give up on the town centre, sit back and wait for grass to grow on New Street. But we do need to be realistic about the future of retail.
Perhaps it’s time for Huddersfield to go back to the future by realising that a town centre is not just a place to shop or to drink – it’s also a place to live.
Last year I interviewed a 92-year-old from Almondbury called Steve Cunningham.
He grew up on Charles Street – close to what today is Buxton House. When he described his childhood in the town centre, I was struck by what a radically different place it was.
He talked about an area which was full of houses, where a friendly rivalry existed in football matches between children from “the Top End” and “the Bottom End”.
The town centre of Mr Cunningham’s youth appears to have been very similar to the rest of Huddersfield. In effect, it was just another village – except it had a major railway station and a town hall.
It would be naïve to think that Huddersfield could or should go back to those days. But there is something in the idea that the town centre would be a livelier place if more people lived there.
Last week’s announcement that the old Palace Theatre could be converted into student flats is a step in the right direction as it could bring a landmark building back into use.
And there are other dilapidated buildings in the town centre which could be turned into homes.
For the childless or the carless, these could be excellent places to live – even if they didn’t have quite as many shops on their doorstep as they would like.