Janet Street-Porter: The snobbish delusions of a dreary mall

What Bluewater offers is as lacklustre and unrewarding as drunken sex or KFC from a bucket
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The Independent Online

The victimisation of the young continues with the news that Britain's largest shopping mall at Bluewater in Kent has imposed a dress code, banning hooded tops and baseball hats. As nearby Chatham can possibly claim to be the birthplace of chavs with their signature uniform of Burberry caps, hooded tops and track suits, I am mystified.

The victimisation of the young continues with the news that Britain's largest shopping mall at Bluewater in Kent has imposed a dress code, banning hooded tops and baseball hats. As nearby Chatham can possibly claim to be the birthplace of chavs with their signature uniform of Burberry caps, hooded tops and track suits, I am mystified.

Does Bluewater now regard itself as a "destination" shopping "experience" on a par with Harvey Nicks? I know Victoria Beckham once visited the place, but the last time I wandered through Bluewater's featureless corridors I couldn't spot a single celebrity or ex-reality show contestant, just a procession of mums, wheeling push chairs, looking fraught.

The only shop I know with anything approaching a dress code is Harrods, which bans rucksacks and torn jeans, but at least they can claim to offer a pretty over-the-top retail experience (a must for every tourist) whereas Bluewater has little to distinguish it from countless other dreary shopping malls throughout our land. It is surrounded by acres of car parks, and situated in a particularly featureless expanse of the Thames Estuary. You enter it by crossing a stagnant "water feature" where the odd McDonald's carton and polystyrene cup can be seen gathering green slime.

Bluewater represents everything that is threadbare in Britain today, a collection of fast food restaurants, chain stores and very few individual traders. It's not about one-off shops and unique design or special service, but the myth of "convenience". When it takes 20 minutes to find a parking space and you need a map to relocate your slot, what's so convenient about that?

Once you're inside the building, everything is unnecessarily spread out - it's best to wear sensible trainers and use a rucksack if you don't want a shoulder injury carrying your purchases. A trip to Boots involves two levels where everything could just as easily be on one. And as for time saving, don't make me hoot! If you have ever tried to enter and leave Bluewater within 30 minutes, you are a highly accomplished shopper and should be given a discount voucher.

Their new policy of instituting a dress code, banning swearing, smoking, leafleting and canvassing, enforced by a resident team of police officers, shows how the managers of this anodyne retail park have big ideas above their station.

Bluewater sees itself as a modern town, with everything you could possibly want under one roof, including bobbies on the beat and security cameras at every corner. But towns have a history, are places built up over centuries with good and bad bits, eyesores and beauty, peopled by local inhabitants, well-known characters like newspaper sellers or fishmongers. Here the reality of Bluewater is rather different; the ugly complex sits on the edge of the wasteland Mr Prescott is so keen to expand with new housing, surrounded by industrial detritus, a veritable spaghetti junction of slip roads and motorway access points.

I can't remember ever seeing anything of architectural merit within five miles of the place. The manager talks of creating a pleasant environment for "guests". The police chief talks of "quality of experience". What Bluewater offers is nothing more than being there. It's as lacklustre and unrewarding an experience as drunken sex or eating KFC out of a paper bucket.

Young people might congregate in these places because there's nowhere else to go in the dead zone that is Dartford. And didn't they always hang around outside fish and chip shops and the bus station, drinking from cans, smoking and sneering at passers-by? Have we all become so pathetically thin-skinned that the sight of five teenagers in hoodies between John Lewis and Marks & Spencer represents a dangerous gang?

Once, town centres were places where we supported local traders, were offered leaflets by local action groups, got sold The Big Issue by the local homeless person, and steered our way around the gangs of youths outside the record store en route to the local market. All that is disappearing fast, replaced by a faceless Britain where town centres are car-free dead zones, rents and council tax are so high that small businesses have gone, and most of us do a weekly shop at a superstore or an out-of-town mall. There are still some thriving street markets, and once a week farmers' markets selling local produce are on the increase, but up and down Britain generally the heart has gone out of our small towns for good, driven away by the mighty Tesco and its competitors.

The main problem is that superstores and shopping malls are environmental hazards on a huge scale. Drive up the A1 by the Angel of the North outside Gateshead - fabulous. Then, just down the road, the Metro shopping centre - a horror with zero visual appeal.

The Government (ie Mr Prescott's department) has been particularly feeble when it comes to allowing vast tracts of countryside to be concreted over in the name of retail. They never order car parks to be underground or insist developers include art works and inventive planting that could put something back into the area that's been designated for devastation in the name of bulk buying.

A row of recycling bins and lines of roofed trolley parks hardly ring my bell - why not a giant Marc Quinn piece or something by Andy Goldsworthy? And if you create monster soulless malls, then don't punish the young for hanging out in them - where else do you expect them to while away their time? The owners of Bluewater could have come up with a bit of land for a BMX ramp. They could have built a go-kart track instead of all that car park. They could have ploughed just 1 per cent of their giant profits into a real water feature - instead of their grimy pond.

After all, millions of happy Brits have paid a fortune to see the gorgeous gardens at Alnwick in Northumberland with their spectacular fountains. The Eden project is another example of anew successful tourist attraction, the lessons of which have singularly failed to rub off on retailers. Bluewater could have created a community centre for local youth, staffed by qualified workers, where they could play loud music and hang out, find out about jobs and how to get qualifications.

The trouble is, all the owners of Bluewater want is our cash; they couldn't give a damn about the local community and its needs. The same story is repeating itself all over Britain, opportunities lost or shunned over and over again. Bluewater could have had a farmers' market. It could have an opportunity for local crafts people to sell stuff at the weekends. It could have exhibitions on loan from the Tate. It could be a real destination. But it's settled for the three Bs. Bland, boring and big, because what it wants is profit, pure and simple.

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