Tribute to bad planning

The view from the high street Two views of life in league-leader Kingston upon Thames and bottom-of-the-list Barnsley
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The Independent Online
IAN HARGREAVES

To call Kingston the best town in Britain is like saying Police Academy III is the best movie ever to come out of Hollywood or that Wimbledon are Europe's most stylish football team. You simply cannot fathom where the reasoning has begun.

In fact, the Guinness case for Kingston just goes to show that you cannot live by that which can be counted. Yes, Kingston is near a big airport and has lots of roads and chain stores. But those of us who lived there before the mid-1980s remember the little alleys and dusty curiosities now buried beneath their foundations.

Yes, Kingston was the coronation site of Saxon kings. Visitors may judge for themselves the stunted and uneasy references to this resonant fact in a pedestrianised centre whose architectural ambience is closer to that of a Happy Eater than of an ancient market town.

The truth is that Kingston is an astonishing missed opportunity, a tribute to bad planning and deficient imagination.

It sits on a gorgeous stretch of the river Thames and is edged by three magnificent royal parks. But the "redeveloped" river front would make the architect of an average bus station blush.

There isn't a decent restaurant; the small theatres that existed two decades ago are gone and you cannot approach the place without scouring your senses on the featureless facade of the John Lewis store or a Custer's last stand circle of car parks and more car parks.

It is sub-urban in the truest sense; less than urban, lacking the drive, the personality and conviction which makes us want to live in big towns and cities. There is more culture in Coronation Street than in Kingston.

So the people of Barnsley drive "patched and battered" cars, having had the soul of their town assaulted by the retreating coal industry. Better so than to sell your civic soul to the highest bidder. Indeed, I can't think of a town on either side of the Pennines whose name begins with B and ends in Y against which Kingston can stage a contest.

The writer lived in Kingston upon Thames in the 1970s and 1980s. He was born in Burnley.

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