What do you do when M&S, Debenhams and New Look are all gone? Knock down the shopping centre and replace it with a riverside oasis. Could the ‘visionary’ plan of Stockton-on-Tees spark a revolution?
An empty Debenhams, a shuttered Marks & Spencer, an abandoned New Look: the town centre of Stockton-on-Tees has suffered a similar fate to countless high streets up and down the UK, struggling to survive in the online shopping, Covid-stricken era. But, while some towns scramble to convert empty department stores into flats, or fill vacant shops with community pop-ups and urban farms, Stockton Council has come up with an altogether bolder proposition for the post-retail age. It plans to demolish half the high street and replace it with a park.
“The government asked for ‘transformational’ proposals for our high streets,” says councillor Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration. “If this is not transformational, I don’t know what is.” If the plans go ahead, the project will see an ailing shopping arcade ripped up and replaced with a riverside park three times the size of Trafalgar Square, providing grandstand views across a bucolic scene of rowing, sailing and waterside promenading along the Tees. As retail continues to retreat, might our future high streets embrace the great outdoors?