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LET'S TAKE THE DUD OUT OF DUDLEY

03-11-2006

The other week The Stirrer mused on the "forgotten towns of the West Midlands" [link], and few have been neglected as badly as Dudley. Dave Woodhall argues for a revival.

It's always sad to see something that you hold dear sinking into decline through lack of care. From old buildings to the Midlands' motor industry, we have a habit of dismissing what's already around us as outdated and useless while at the same time forever searching for something new and innovative.

I was reminded of this when I was wandering through Dudley town centre the other afternoon. It was a horrible, rainy day and the people reflected the conditions. Downcast, miserable and perfectly at home in their surroundings. Because, to put it bluntly, Dudley's crap. The shops are a mixture of poundworld tat, fast food outlets and betting shops, and once they've shut the town closes with them.

The only signs of life after dark come from kebab shops and the odd pub that can be bothered to stay open. It's an ill-fitting scenario for a town that once described itself, with proud justification, as the capital of the Black Country. My nan always used to say that you could get anything from an ant to an elephant from Dudley market (my nan, like most nans, had a lot of daft sayings), and I can remember a time - not all that long ago, either - when a night out in the town was as good as anywhere.

Many places such as this would be the target of massive investment programmes, However, Dudley seems to have been left to rot. Even the Government Office for the West Midlands, whose ever-increasing and unaccountable powers over the region should, incidentally, give cause for concern, have decreed that Dudley town centre isn't really worth bothering with.

Their recently-published Regional Spatial Strategy states that Brierley Hill should now be regarded as the hub of the Dudley metropolitan borough area and that Dudley itself should be concentrating on tourism and heritage. That's fine, but as of yet there isn't much evidence of this idea being put into action.

Dudley does, indeed, have a fine history and there's a lot of which it could be proud.Until recently even the shopping centre provided a useful alternative to Wolverhampton and Birmingham, and the town provided a decent night out, with plenty of pubs, an array of nightclubs and the legendary JB's, one of the oldest independent music venues in the country. Then there's the historical aspects of the borough, the castle and zoo as well as numerous other historical attractions.

It's time that Dudley was promoted as an alternative attraction in its own right. It might take a bit of thought and investment, but the rewards would be there. If, for example, Bradford can re-invent itself as a tourist attraction, I'm sure Dudley can.

For a start, it should be easier to get there. The metro extension should be finally sorted out - the West Midlands' light rail programme should consist of more than one length of track.

Dudley Zoo should be closed down, or maybe replaced with a zoological research centre. There's no place for such an unattractive, outdated place. Instead, more emphasis should be placed on the castle. This dates back to the eleventh century, and it's ludicrous to think that it can only be accessed as an afterthought by visitors to the zoo. It should be the centrepiece of the entire town. Make it part of a heritage trail that includes the Black Country Museum, the nearby ruined priory and the Wren's Nest nature reserve.

The appalling sixties Churchill Precinct should be demolished and in its place, how about building a Black Country equivalent of the Custard Factory? The area has a rich heritage of manufacture and design; encourage modern artists to utilise the place.

There's a lot of fine old buildings which could be transformed as well. Grants, business rate reductions, all manner of incentives could be offered to anyone who opens a shop selling items that cost more than £1 and don't come with fries and chilli sauce as an optional extra. Get the kind of outlets that shoppers travel miles for - antique shops, decent food and clothes outlets. Dudley's got one of the few outdoor market places left in the area - bring in a proper farmers market and regular local produce sales from the surrounding countryside.

Cavendish House, an office block close to the bus station, has been empty for years. Relocate some branch of local government into there in order to provide a bit more life and lunchtime/early evening income.

The Black Country is a Mecca for real ale, although you wouldn't know it with Dudley's collection of pubs, when they're open, offering little more than the ubiquitous Banks's. Let's have a micro-brewery or two opening. Also encourage a wider variety of people to patronise the town centre at night by making more use of the town hall and get a couple of decent restaurants to open. There's plenty of unspoilt architecture around the town - make the most of the current vogue for apartments by encouraging their conversion to housing. That way, you'd also bring more into the local economy.


Some of this might be pie in the sky theory, and you might think it has no place in what for years has been a rundown Black Country town. Yet Dudley and the surrounding areas isn't just urban dereliction and closed-down factories. There are some very prosperous areas not far away, and Dudley is surprisingly near to some glorious countryside. The money's out there, waiting to be spent. All we need now is a little imagination.
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