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WOLVO: AIN’T NO LOVE IN THE HEART OF THE CITY

11-02-2008

Wolverhampton

There’s been much discussion on our Message Board about the forthcoming redevelopment of Wolverhampton City Centre – which will see a clutch of independent traders around Summer Row forced out to make way for a new Debenhams. Lynn Hawthorne laments the loss of one special institution.

It is inescapable: our towns and cities are changing fast. Everywhere you go, there is frantic building activity and earnest ‘redevelopment’. The geometric concrete blocks of the 1960’s are being replaced by metal and glass. Shiny, new and attractive plazas are replacing dull and rundown areas. So far, so good.

But why is this being done? At whom is it aimed? Is it the loyal locals who have shopped and worked there for years, or is it the seemingly-wealthy young, who, unable to get onto the property ladder and so unencumbered by mortgages, have disposable income?

What is being delivered is homogeneity, for the only businesses able to afford the rents and leases as sky-high as the glittering apex roofline are the chains, the big-turnover, big profit organisations out for retail domination. Therefore, instead of enhancing consumer choice, what we are left with is the same shops in a different order – just in posh new surroundings.

As you know, I am a fan of diversity, of the independent retailer who knows his/her products well and who knows the clientele well, also. These establishments are becoming rarer than hens’ teeth and Wolverhampton is about to lose another clutch.

The proposed £300 million development of the Summer Row/ Cleveland Street area of the city will include a Debenhams department store (haven’t we had to fight hard enough to keep Beatties?), 85 shops, a cinema (two were closed years ago) and ‘leisure facilities.’

The existing proprietors have less than 3 months to quit and the promised help and support from the Council is failing to materialise. Instead of assistance with relocation, there appears to be obstruction, with potential units being deemed ‘unsuitable’ by officials, so the initial offers of help with new rents and restitution of takings are increasingly unlikely, too.

For many businesses unable to fight the ‘big boys’, this may well prove the last straw and they will fold. These are small, but important, livelihoods we’re talking about, where each shop makes a contribution to the local economy.

But it’s not just finance that is under threat. Tucked away in this quarter is a little gem:The City Diner Cleveland Street has been owned and run for the last 6 six years by Hilda Duffy.

“It’s not perfect,” she admits , “but we like to have a laugh and a joke with our customers as we provide them with a meal. I always say that the abuse is free!”

And it’s the customers who are key in this case. By and large, they are retired and elderly. Many of them come in daily for a hot meal at a price they can afford. Main courses cost between £2.50 and £4 and a daily roast – a nutritionally-balanced hot meal – can be bought for £4.25. Desserts average out at £2. Everything is homemade on the premises and the menu is traditional – call it old-fashioned if you like – but it’s what the customers like and what they want.

The City Diner, however, is a gem not because of its food, but because of the service it provides. It fulfils the function of the little post office in a village. The friendly staff know most of the customers by name and get concerned if they don’t see one of their regulars for a while. The word goes out, because there is a strong sense of community here, a social network that cares about its’ clientele.

Ladies-who-lunch meet up with their friends and lonely people, often widowed, seem to make new friends or, at least, find someone to talk to to break up the tedium of the day. The gentlemen all discuss things that matter to them and on Saturday, all piled in early to gird their loins before braving The Molineux. “Here’s another sucker!” was the favoured greeting, before an in-depth discussion on the logistics of the season if Albion and Wolves both make it to the next round of the Cup. I daresay there’s even the potential of romance, as I’ve seen the twinkle in the eye of a wrinkly lothario as he asks to share a table with a lady alone!

The café is a social centre without the stench of institution. It’s nothing to do with Social Services, or a church, or an interest group. It’s not exclusive and welcomes all. At the end of the day, it’s a business, but it’s one with a heart. Hilda and Alan, along with their staff, actually care about what they do and that it also rare.

So when planners sit down at their executive tables and start playing with their computer simulations and modelling kits before lunching on pre-packed, deep-fried buffets, perhaps they should actually ask themselves for whom they are making these changes. Perhaps they should ask themselves where they will eat and shop when they are retired: let’s face it, the elderly don’t seem to feature much in any of the high street stores anymore.

And perhaps they should also honour their promises and actually properly support businesses that are forced to relocate. For a section of our community, it’s not a retail outlet on a map we’re talking about, but a way of life. And this way of life is disappearing fast.

Join the “Is Wolvo Dying On Its Arse?” thread on The Stirrer Forum.

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