Is Gloucester a dump? This was the question posed on the thisisgloucestershire website on Sunday after a Bristol based venue magazine listed it as among the least favoured areas to visit.
Unsurprisingly, the article (see http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/gloucestershireheadlines/Gloucester-dump/article-892478-detail/article.html) attracted a good number of comments: 157 when I last looked. I don’t claim to have read through them all – it’s not good for my blood pressure – but a surprising number of local residents seem to think that it is indeed a dump.
The question is an interesting one and I believe the response is very telling. Firstly, cards on the table, I like to think of myself as something of a supporter for Gloucester. I have, after all, written a book on the city (The Story of Gloucester, in a good bookshop near you – as long as you live in Gloucester!). Gloucester’s history alone should raise it above the category of a dump, but a city cannot rely purely on its history to make it an attractive place which people want to visit. People are understandably more interested in what it is like now, and it has to be admitted that this leaves something to be desired.
There are many reasons given for the city’s decline, many of which I have a good deal of sympathy for. Rates on shops are far too high and out of town retail centres are drawing trade away, especially since they provide free parking whereas the cost of city centre parking is increasingly prohibitive. People also often blame the architecture: Gloucester suffered particularly badly from ugly post-war development, which reached its nadir with the Jellico Plan of 1962, but Gloucester is not unique in that – Cheltenham’s High Street is little better, but doesn’t suffer the same degree of criticism.
The problem, as I see it, is something of a catch-22: to improve the city it is necessary to attract both major retail stores and more individual boutique shops to encourage shoppers. But before these stores will come they need to be convinced that there are enough shoppers to support them and allow them to make a profit.
A lot of work and money is being spent on the problem: the Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company is pumping £1 billion into regenerating the city over 10 years, starting with the £200 million Quays redevelopment which sees its first milestone, the opening of the Gloucester Quays Outlet Centre, delivered in May. You would think that raising this amount of investment in the city would cause excitement, enthusiasm and pride amongst its inhabitants, but this is frequently not the case; and here I think lies Gloucester’s biggest problem.
Whatever is proposed for the city is met by a toxic mix of cynicism, criticism and ridicule by its residents. The Quays development, they say, is on the outskirts of the city and will take more trade away from the city leading to its further decline. Also, the shops are too posh for Gloucester people to afford, according to some, missing the point that we have quite enough pound shops and charity shops already and it is people with designer clothing money that we need to attract to the city if it is to be improved.
Kings Square is another classic point of contention. Debates have raged and public consultations have been held, but there is no agreement on what it should be used for. There is a even a frequently voiced opinion by older residents that it should revert to a car park or bus station as it was in the 1950s: is that really progressive thinking?
The initial introduction of a Christmas ice-rink at the Square a couple of years ago caused a flurry of concern and condemnation. As it happens it was a huge success and has appeared each year since, but it wouldn’t have happened if vocal local residents had their way.
There seems to be a firmly held view by Gloucester residents that if something is not personally tailored to their specific requirements it should not happen, and of course you can’t please everyone on that basis, so everything gets bogged down in debate and inertia.
And let’s not forget the scourge of NIMBY-ism. This recently raised its head following the suggestion that the docks should have a big Ferris wheel like the London Eye erected over the summer to attract tourists. The residents of the new apartments at the Docks were immediately up in arms – apparently this would ruin their summer with noise and ‘criminals will use the wheel to peer into resident’s flats.’ They seem to forget that they bought their property not in a quiet residential suburb, but a city centre tourist attraction!
So is Gloucester a dump? Well if it is, perhaps it is what we deserve. Alternatively, perhaps if everyone stopped sniping and whinging and started being a little more positive something could be done to improve both the appearance and perception of this great city.