Doncaster lost 5% of its high street shops last year – but both the council and creative locals are trying to think again
Most towns and cities have the strange, uncertain spaces some people call “edgelands”, but Doncaster’s seem to go on for ever. Thanks to the town’s proximity to five motorways, the expanses around it are full of retail parks and distribution centres, those leviathans that sit at the heart of 21st-century consumerism.
Three of them belong to Amazon. The two nearest the town centre are comparatively modest, set in a business park that includes a Morrison’s supermarket and a Holiday Inn Express. But the newest is a breathtakingly vast black and silver box covering 1.1m sq ft (102,200 sq metres). On a day when bright sunlight seems to make it glow, driving around its seemingly endless walls proves to be a mesmerising experience, only spoiled by the unshakeable feeling that my little hire car and I are being watched.
The building was opened last year by the local Labour MP, Caroline Flint, who said the construction was “light and spacious and happens to be the size of 15 football pitches”. Along with a similarly massive Lidl warehouse, it is part of the iPort development, built next to a junction of roads and a new railway freight terminal.
The promotional material for iPort promises “bespoke mega-warehouses”, “strong demographics” and “multimodal connectivity”. When it opened, local headlines focused on the prospect of 5,000 new jobs, but its near-silent ambience arguably points to a future that will be much more complicated: given that the preparation of a parcel in Amazon’s most cutting-edge centres is now reckoned to involve no more than a minute of human work, places like this may yet symbolise labour slowly disappearing from the buying and selling of stuff, as everything is subordinated to computerised efficiency.
Obviously, other controversies swirl around Amazon and how it operates – something highlighted last month, when rising noise about its treatment of workers resulted in the decision to raise its minimum hourly wage to $15 in the US and £9.50 here (a move that will eat up no more than 1% of its projected annual revenue). But nothing, it seems, can stop the company’s frantic drive to sell the human race anything and everything. Amazon’s share of annual British spending now puts it just below the big four supermarkets. It currently accounts for about a third of our online spending, which is itself growing fast: between 2016 and 2017 alone, the value of stuff bought in the UK via the internet went up by 15.9%. We might still spend the majority of our money in traditional shops, but it is pretty obvious where we are heading.
In 2017, more than 5,800 shops closed on British high streets – an average of 16 a day – with a net loss of 1,772. Every week seems to bring news of some big retailer hitting the wall, while hundreds of independent shops quietly run out of money. As more and more goods tumble through letterboxes in brown cardboard parcels, the idea of a high street crisis is now common political currency, blurring into a growing obsession among politicians with the fate of English towns, many of which seemed to express their collective fears about the future by voting for Brexit.
Doncaster, where 69% of voters backed leaving the EU – presents no end of examples of all this. In April this year, the directory business Local Data Company reported that, over the previous 12 months, the town had suffered a net loss of 13 shops, nearly 5% of the total. Six months on, the most obvious examples of the retreat of chain retailers are two empty branches of Poundworld, but the town has also either lost, or is about to lose, Mothercare, Maplin, two big Toys R Us stores, the menswear wing of New Look and a branch of Tesco. Inevitably, there are also plenty of premises vacated by independent businesses.
During the two days I spend in and around the town, the expanding presence of Amazon is a regular conversation topic, but there is less anger and more a resigned sense that Jeff Bezos’s company represents the future and towns such as this are somehow going to have to deal with it. Essentially, Doncaster is entering the third phase of its postwar history. Once, it was a byword for coalmining. When the pits shut, it was pushed towards the kind of chain-store retailing that defined a strangely circular economic model, in which people worked in shops to spend money in other shops. Now, as it embraces the new world of warehousing and “logistics”, one question screams out for an answer: what is going to happen to its town centre?
This April, Doncaster council’s director of regeneration was asked how the town would adjust to the economic future represented by all these distribution centres. “Doncaster is adapting to the challenges of online shopping and trying to offer something that digital retailers cannot,” he said. If iPort seems to symbolise a model of retailing in which human beings are increasingly tangential, the people in charge of the town centre apparently want to turn the middle of town into its exact opposite: a noisy, very human focused place for socialising and collective experience.
Since July, Doncaster’s three-floor former BHS has been the home of Flip Out, an indoor trampoline park that offers kids’ parties and “flip fit classes” and is about to embrace the world of “corporate team-building”. New bars and cafes are opening. Since 2013, a part of town that was once dominated by an outdoor car park has been transformed by Cast, a huge theatre and arts venue. The summer of 2020 will see the opening of a newly built Cultural and Learning Centre” that will include a library and a town museum. Perhaps most interestingly, Doncaster is home to a small community of artists and creative people whose contribution to the life of the town – and a vision of what might happen to former shops in its centre – is becoming increasingly visible.
“Everything is changing,” says Bill Mordue, Cabinet member for business, skills and economic development. “It does focus your mind. You think: ‘We can’t just let our town centre die. We need to do something.’ We know that retail’s not the be all and end all.”
Along with the town’s breathlessly enthusiastic assistant director of development, Scott Cardwell, Mordue spends two hours showing me round the town centre. They use a lot of words and phrases such as “footfall”, “proactive”, “retail offer” and “gateway feature”. Among Mordue’s inspirations, he explains, is Hebden Bridge, the West Yorkshire market town recently described in the Guardian as “officially the quirkiest/kookiest/koolest/most LGBTQ-friendly/least chain-store-y etc small town in the universe”.
The council is judiciously buying shops in particular town centre locations, carefully thinking about the kind of businesses that will set a new tone. It will soon reopen the Wool Market, a dashing Victorian structure that it wants to fill with food outlets open into the early evening. Its ideas seem to be similar to those currently circulating around plenty of other UK towns and cities. But it prompts an inevitable question: even if that kind of stuff might work in market towns now full of craft beer, record shops and men with beards who split their time between web design and wonky carpentry, can it work in a former mining centre with a population of 110,000?
“Well, if you look at Hebden Bridge in the 1970s, they literally could not give houses away,” says Mordue. “That’s how the sort of bohemian quarter developed: people moved into houses that were worthless and it had a knock-on effect. And I genuinely think that we can … perhaps not do an exact Hebden Bridge, but something along those lines.” A three bedroom house in central Doncaster can be bought for about £100,000; given that the town is well under two hours from London by train and the journey time is about to be shortened, it’s not hard to see where he and Cardwell are coming from.
The two of them talk about Amazon’s presence in Doncaster with a brisk enthusiasm. “When they’re at full tilt, they’re employing 2,000 people,” says Cardwell. They enthuse about the “logistics academy” that was opened as an adjunct to iPort, to “create a labour pool for those big developers”.
In Doncaster I encountered a number of pioneers who have invested time and money into the vision of a new kind of town, and either started businesses or expanded into new places. While on my tour with Mordue and Cardwell, I stray into an amazing delicatessen with food from across the world owned by Josephine Scicluna, a Doncaster native whose family came to the town from Malta. “Times have changed,” she says, glumly. “The market here used to be heaving. There weren’t so many supermarkets, people weren’t shopping online, were they?” Her single biggest problem, she explains, is an annual £10,000 business rates bill; when Scicluna says she is not certain she will make it through next year, she wells up.
Carol and Hannah Shekle are a mother and daughter team who own a cafe and cakemaking business called Dreambakes. They have been open for just 18 weeks. Carol is a retired primary school teacher; Hannah is a graduate in French with a background in the restaurant trade who moved back to Doncaster from Manchester to start the venture. They source as many ingredients as they can from Yorkshire and serve far better coffee than you get from the chains. “There are some people who’ve seen the sort of ... negative press about town and believed it,” says Hannah. “The thing is, people are starting to come back into the town centre.”
Over a pint at the Marketplace Ale House and Deli, I meet the proprietor, John Grindrod, who has been in charge for six weeks. Grindrod was once a Doncaster coalminer before he moved to New Zealand, where he and his wife ran a motel.
How confident is he that his bar will succeed?
“I’m £43,000 worth of confident. That’s how much I’ve put in.”
And does he think Doncaster will revive itself? “Oh, I think so. Tough people…tough town.”
In time, might Doncaster become like … Manchester? No, we don’t want Doncaster to be like Manchester…we want it to be like Doncaster… Our own thing.