Wakefield needs a plan for the future that will take it through to 2050, according to a retail expert.
Former Wickes and Iceland chief executive Bill Grimsey told councillors and business representatives in the city that the country is going through another industrial revolution and technology is changing the way people live.
The meeting follows the Express’ city centre survey where you told us what you want to see in Wakefield.
The results formed part of Wakefield Council’s high street summit last month and we have used your opinions to lead our coverage of the city.
Mr Grimsey, the author of two major reports into the future of British high streets, told the Wakefield Town Hall conference that the reasons people visit city centres were changing.
He said: “We are heading into a century that is going to be so different to the 20th century and we cannot hark back. You’re not going to bring it back, you’re not going to recreate it so leave it behind.”
Figures show we have reached a point where the rate of shop closures has outgrown shop openings. In the results of our survey you said empty shop units were one of the biggest problems in Wakefield and Mr Grimsey said a long-term plan to find different uses for that space was key to making the city thrive.
“If you walk round Wakefield you can see it, ranging from huge the hole left behind by BHS to smaller independent retailers,” he said.
He said that the car was the most important invention that defined how retail worked last century – in terms of driving to supermarkets and out of town retail parks – but the defining invention of this era is the smartphone.
It will be at the heart of any new changes to the city centres and how people live their lives, according to his predictions.
And local authorities need to be the ones to take charge and think about long term goals rather than short term fixes.
He said: “Don’t think about money, think about vision and the longer term – think about what Wakefield will stand for in 2050.
“Everything you plan must make sense in terms of a long term vision. If it doesn’t then why are you doing it?’
“We look at the architecture of the 60s and the 70s as the most ridiculous era ever and it was done with good intentions but without a proper plan so we need to look at what mistakes we are making now that could be the same.
“Wakefield has very exciting opportunities. A problem is just an opportunity to change things for the better, and Wakefield has a huge number of opportunities.
“It has too much retail space, too many empty shops and, if you land here as a Martian like I did, you think ‘what does Wakefield stand for? Why would I live, work and play here? What’s it telling me when I walk around?’
“So you need to start with a vision for 2050 and work back from there.”
And he said councils need to be tougher on landlords who leave retail units empty. “Find out who owns everything then go after them big time,” he told councillors.
“Fine them – fine someone – say ‘you cannot leave this property empty for three years. We in Wakefield are not putting up it’. It’s as simple as that. Though I’ve not found evidence of anyone brave enough to do it yet.”
He added: “If you have any plans for out of town retail parks should you put them in the waste bin.”