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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 05:31 GMT 06:31 UK
Shopping centre crucial for city
by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Moving to Plymouth from London was a depressing experience for a seasoned shopper.

After being able to browse the racks of Gap, Jigsaw and Paul Smith, Plymouth seemed a bit threadbare.

People have been staying away from Plymouth's shopping centre for years, put off by the lack of big names and the dowdy shops built in the 1950s.

Locals preferred to leave the city and spend their money elsewhere, leaving the city centre to stagnate.

But with top brands and huge floor areas, the new 200m Drake Circus mall, aims to reverse the city's fortunes.

Sixty years ago Plymouth's shopping centre was a bombsite.

The Luftwaffe had turned the lanes of the historic naval port into rubble, but the council had big plans to revive the city's centre.

After the war the Abercrombie plan led to new city centre shops, with handsome stone frontages and wide pedestrian precincts.

Royal Parade
The Luftwaffe raided Plymouth seven times in the spring of 1941

Which, while adequate in size for the 1950s, have become plain pokey in 2006.

And now the times - and the shoppers - have moved on.

Plymouth is the 14th largest UK city but was recently ranked only 29th for retail.

Researchers Experian said in 2003 that potential high street spending in Plymouth's catchment area was 1,094m but it was catching only 600m.

Only 8% of those living west of Plymouth, in Kingsbridge, Dartmouth and Newton Abbot, shopped in the city in 2003.

David Draffan, managing director of the City Centre Company which oversees the management of the area for the city council, said Plymouth had the potential to be the major regional centre for the west.

"People have deserted Plymouth," he said.

Drake Circus
I think Drake Circus is the catalyst to a lot of things
David Draffan

"The city has been exporting people to Exeter because it did not have the range and depth in shops and Drake Circus will try to reconnect the city with those people."

The city had suffered from the well-intentioned plans of the past.

Mr Draffan said: "It built a retail museum, with shops unable to expand."

He said it had seen the city centre "stagnate" and it had been unable to take advantage of the spending boom of the 1980s.

Drake Circus has been described as "the prince riding to the rescue of Plymouth, the Cinderella of the South West".

"There are very few cities of this size that missed out on the development of the 1980s like Plymouth did," said Mr Draffan.

"For two decades the city centre has suffered."

There is still no Gap or Jigsaw, but Hennes is there, as is Zara and Starbucks, Monsoon and Office.

Mr Draffan said it would be enough lure back stay-away shoppers.

Forty-six high-street businesses signed up with developer P&O, so the centre was 90% let when it opened on 5 October.

"I think expectations will be exceeded. There is a lot of pent-up demand that has not been satisfied."

However Plymouth University's professor of architecture, Jeremy Gould, is not impressed.

He described the building's facade as "inexcusable".

Drake Circus
The tragedy is that a large chunk of the city centre is just shopping and car parking
Professor Jeremy Gould
He said: "The tragedy is that a large chunk of the city centre is just shopping and car parking.

"It could surely have included some housing or some offices.

"That huge new car park will have to be full all the time, attracting more cars into the city, more pollution, all making the surrounding city less pleasant to be in."

Mr Draffan called the facade "innovative", but admitted: "It looks better inside than out."

The mall is the first visible sign of proposals from renowned architect David Mackay, who was hired by the city council to present a vision - dubbed the Mackay Vision - of the city for the future.

Other steps include demolishing parts of the current shopping centre to introduce tree-lined mews, with pubs, clubs, cafes and inner-city flats.

There's also a plan to create a boulevard to Millbay, which could be redeveloped into 2,500 homes.

Mr Draffan said: "I think Drake Circus is the catalyst to a lot of things.

"Plymouth needs a big bang to start the whole thing off."


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