Working wonders in Wolverhampton

Out-of-town malls have dealt a mortal blow to many of our city centres. But some places are fighting back, led by a new breed of urban crusader. Mary Braid reports
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Ken Mackie pulls impatiently at the lone fly poster marring an otherwise immaculate street in Wolverhampton town centre. Struggling to get his fingernails under the sticky paper, he complains with all the irritation of the houseproud wife spotting finger smudges on freshly washed windows.

This is not the first incident to blight the former police inspector's day. So far, he has had to break his purposeful stride to tick off two youths in a flash sports car for driving into a recently pedestrianised street. He has also witnessed another driver brazenly using a route set aside for buses and taxis. Then there was the drunk sleeping it off in the church gardens. "That's rare," 57-year-old Mr Mackie insists. "The police will be along to move him on soon."

Before he retired, Mr Mackie was in charge of policing Wolverhampton town centre. Today he is a town centre manager, pioneer of a new public service. His assault on every item of litter, graffiti and poster may seem petty, but attention to environmental detail is just the most obvious sign of a concerted campaign to breathe life back into his old patch .

It is a battle that is spreading to towns and cities all over Britain. In 1991, when he was appointed by Wolverhampton council, Mr Mackie was just the eighth of his tribe in the UK. There are now more than 100 town centre managers battling to revitalise run-down city and town centres.

In the fight for the old centres, out-of-town shopping is enemy No 1. In Wolverhampton's case the deadly foe lurks just six miles away: the Merryhill shopping centre, with its monorail to ferry thousands of customers around hundreds of outlets, opened 10 years ago. Mr Mackie claims Merryhill's birth killed nearby Dudley and threatened Wolverhampton town centre with disaster. Business began to suffer. Shops closed. The centre began to look tatty. "People began to see the centre as a hostile place," says Mr Mackie. "Some said it was a no-go area at night."

Mr Mackie's appointment heralded the start of a co-ordinated fight-back which has attempted to unite traders and the council and woo back thousands of out-of-town shopping converts. Pointing to the new ornamental railing and fancy street lights, he says Wolverhampton town centre is beginning to win.

But the obstacles are formidable. The owners of out-of-town complexes have total control over parking, security and public facilities. To compete, Mr Mackie says, the centre must match them for "safety, comfort and convenience". If you achieve this, the old centres will win, he insists, because they have alternative attractions: churches, libraries, galleries and restaurants.

Matching out-of-town complexes is no small order when you are dealing with hundreds of retailers who, in the past, may have regarded the local council as a hindrance rather than an ally. Council departments are notorious for their failure to co-ordinate policies and consult each other. "Instead of being shunted around various departments, retailers can come straight to me," says Mr Mackie.

Gaining acceptance within the council can be difficult. This morning Mr Mackie has been comforting a young man who has recently been appointed manager of another town. "He phoned to ask what you do when no one on the council invites you to meetings," laughed Mr Mackie. "I told him you have to gain their confidence, ask their advice, involve them." Mr Mackie found it easy to get local businesses on board, but it took him the best part of two years to win over some council officials. He spends a lot of time presenting the business point of view to the city. Liaising between the retailers and the council officials, he says, requires diplomacy.

Town management is a new concept and councils define it differently. A few managers are no more than city centre janitors but some, like Mr Mackie, are involved in anything - from traffic control to commercial redevelopment and security systems - that could make the centre more attractive to customers, investors and retailers. Mr Mackie campaigned hard for the pedestrianisation of the town centre and introduced a sophisticated radio security system, which now protects a network of 86 retailers against shoplifters. Installed in 1992, the system cut shoplifting losses by 38 per cent in the first year. "It's brilliant," says the store detective in Boots' tiny camera surveillance room. "You get help right away. Even if they don't take anything from your shop, you can radio round the rest with a description and they get caught later."

Recently Mr Mackie organised a concert by the English Symphony Orchestra. "People who came along left with a great feeling about the town. One commented that you could be in any town in Europe. You have to be a little drunk to say that, but it was lovely, with the church lit up and the fireworks. No one has specific responsibility on the council to promote Wolverhampton so I do a little of that, too."

Mr Mackie is now a convert to a wider cause. To those who deny the need to protect town and city centres, he points to US "downtowns", where the notion of centre management was born and from where some of the British strategies have been adopted. "In America, city centres died as out-of- town shopping developed. That all started 40 years ago and today they are trying to reverse the trend."

Gerry Shaw, manager of Marks & Spencer and chair of Wolverhampton Town Centre Association, says they have to fight their corner. The arrival of Merryhill cut the store's profits. Sprucing up the centre has improved business. Marks & Spencer is now planning new investment. Mr Shaw says: "Now that we have a town manager, we have someone to go to in the council."

There are other signs of success. The local hotel has just been bought by a major chain. The two main shopping centres are about to undergo major redevelopment. With the improvements to daytime business has come the renaissance of local night life. Ten years ago, Mr Mackie says, the town was "wild". Now a better class of person ventures out after dark. They feel safer. "On a Saturday night we have 10,000 to 12,000 people coming out of around 30 clubs at 2am. The police will tell you there is no public disorder."

Business has woken up to the advantages. The Association of Town Centre Management now has as many, if not more, business members than local authority- appointed town managers. Marks & Spencer, Boots and other major retailers have seconded employees to promote town management nationwide. The association is keen for the town manager's role to become a joint business/council venture. But if business wants more of a say, it will have to start paying half of Mr Mackie's pounds 25,000 salary and expenses and fund more of his activities. Mr Mackie supports the idea of a 50/50 partnership between council and local businesses. He laments the absence of a specific budget, pointing out that he has to rely on the goodwill of council departments.

While more than 100 towns and cities now have a centre manager, their public profile remains low. "City manager?" muses one Wolverhampton shopper. "Is that someone who manages shares?" But the association has established political clout. Five years ago the Government knew little of its objectives. But in 1994 John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, wrote the foreword to the association's annual report, arguing that "town centre management is a subject whose time has come". Maybe. Still, David Rose, spokesman for the Royal Town Planning Institute, argues that too many town managers take too narrow a view of the role. Few enjoy even Mr Mackie's latitude. "There is an awful lot more to town centres than retailing," he says. "Attention is beginning to focus on what happens after shops close. The leisure industry must be included in the drive forward."

Mr Rose does not believe it is the Government's job to provide the money to revitalise city and town centres. It should come from those who have the greatest stake, with a supplementary business rate for those who operate in town centres. Property owners should stand shoulder to shoulder with retailers and councils.

There is, he says, a long way to go. "After 5.30pm many of our towns are not particularly pleasant. There is no life there, nothing to do. Our job is to breathe life back in."