You are now entering an interest-free zone . . .: The Borough of Bromley boasts a wealth of shoe shops, 'sensible' price boutiques and building societies. Simon Davies spends a day in Dullsville.

Simon Davies
Tuesday 04 October 1994 23:02

It is evening in the Deep South. My friend and I step purposefully from the train, ready to explore a new frontier. One Australian, one American, and the prospect of a thrill-packed night in London's second most populous borough - Bromley.

But where to go? Stretching endlessly to our left and right is an ugly sprawl of bleak commercial town-scape, lifeless except for the odd bunch of sad-looking people waiting for a bus to take them out of here.

We are standing just outside Bromley South railway station, looking along a High Street which an executive from the Royal Fine Art Commission once described as the 'worst example of urban architecture I've ever seen'.

Indeed, the only signs of activity are a Pizza Hut, two bored policemen, and a stream of cars aimlessly touring the streets.

We take the plunge, and walk out on to the main street, into the blackness. The most extraordinary feature of Bromley High Street is its lack of human presence. There are no pubs. No restaurants. No night clubs. The place is inhabited, but deserted.

Despite its size, Bromley is a closed community. It is difficult to find much information about the place. There's no tourist office. Even the PR department of Bromley Council doesn't want to generate any interest in the place. Two telephone conversations had ended with promises to send promotional material, but none arrived.

So, in the spirit of adventure, we keep walking. Past endless shoe emporia and 'sensible price' boutique dress shops. Past building societies, department stores and newsagents. Then on to more shoe emporia. On a Saturday you can't move here for excited shoe and dress consumers.

After 300 yards we strike a vast shopping centre called 'The Glades'. Despite its pastoral name and its environmentally correct colour scheme, many people regard it as a kitsch monstrosity that caused the obliteration of a whole urban community. Streets of fine Victorian houses were demolished in the late 1980s for The Glades. One senior councillor told angry residents 'These houses have been up more than a hundred years, and they don't have any further life.'

The residents didn't have much say in the matter. Over the preceding two years the council had quietly and cleverly bought up half of the properties on the Glades site. The same council then rezoned the area, and made a killing.

Indeed, Bromley council has developed an unparalleled expertise for destroying fine historical buildings. It ordered the demolition of a 1702 Queen Anne building because it did not 'fit in' with the council's idea of a modern high street. The planning department stated flatly that the building had 'no particular merit'. In its place came one of many featureless cubist constructions.

Such vandalism has made Bromley notorious in the annals of architectural heritage. Not so long ago, there existed a fascinating hinterland in Bromley town centre, a chaotic collection of crooked laneways, ancient industrial buildings, stables and gardens.

The Greater London Council considered this precinct to be an area of historical importance, and raised a Conservation Order on the site. Sadly, when the GLC was abolished, Bromley Council took advantage of the situation, cancelled the Conservation Order, and sold the whole area to Sainsbury's, which demolished every building.

Pondering this sad history, we continue our journey north along the high street. Now we are in the Market Square area of Bromley, and things are looking up. Although there are still no pubs or restaurants to be seen, at least some people are in evidence.

Yet even here, in the very hub of Bromley's entertainment zone, there is a nothingness. According to their respective local councils, Bromley has less than a quarter of the restaurants of neighbouring Lewisham, and a fraction of the number of night clubs, theatres and entertainment venues.

Nothing intrudes on the drone of Bromley life. The few cafe's in the area dare not put their tables out into the sunshine for fear of legal action.

Pubs are prohibited from employing any live band bigger than a duo. Bicycling in the main street is prohibited. Life as we know it comes to an end at 11 o'clock. Even during the day, the council exercises an iron grip on public order. Its latest plan is to 'licence' all buskers.

The council's Technical Services Committee is in the forefront of this mania for regulation. Only last month, it agreed to a half-million pound scheme to place the town centre under video camera surveillance.

Not that there is any real level of crime in the area. The committee chairman, David Dear, admits that the surveillance scheme is being built mainly for the 'feel good' factor. He says the public perception that people are safe from crime will be 'considerably greater' than the actual impact on crime.

The committee's new project, planned for next year, is to place speed cameras in residential streets.

It's only natural that a borough so obsessed with public order will support a shoe emporium long before it will support a night club or a bowling alley. Indeed, when the local jazz punk composer Billy Jenkins wrote his 1981 song 'Growing up in Bromley', it turned out to be a death march.

Other artists will sympathise. Billy Idol, David Bowie and Siouxie Sioux all grew up here - and quickly headed for the hills. Bromley is more in tune with such local luminaries as Enid Blyton and Thomas Crapper, architect of the modern toilet system. According to folk lore, HG Wells, who grew up here, refused the offer of a freemanship from Bromley Council.

But surely no part of London can be this tedious? 'You'd better believe it,' says John Steel, a 34-year-old music teacher and songwriter who has survived here all his life. 'Bromley demands mediocrity. People will stand and stare if you wear strangely coloured socks.'

'No one smiles here,' says Neil Quigley, a 28-year-old newcomer from Somerset. 'It's not just that this place is boring, it also saps the life out of you.'

Bromley's council leader, Dennis Barkway, seems unconcerned by this criticism. 'We're a residential borough with a retail centre. What residents want is not night clubs and so forth. In any event, most young people have mobility and they can go to London if they want.'

Barkway's bete noire, Lewisham Council leader Margaret Moran, has a different explanation. 'The Good Burghers of Bromley have lost touch. They are old style, paternalistic and patronising.'

The neighbouring boroughs of Bromley and Lewisham are worlds apart. Labour Lewisham has five times the immigrant population of Conservative Bromley. It is younger, poorer, and has a vast amount more community life.

'It all depends on your philosophy,' says Ms Moran. 'Lewisham is more responsive to local citizens. We've intentionally stimulated a lively and multicultural community. In Bromley, they just want a quiet life.'

'Well everyone's entitled to their opinion,' responds Mr Barkway. 'But we have to support the residents' general opinion, and Bromley is a reflection of the residents.'

This rot set in a long time ago. At the turn of the century, Bromley stopped the trams crossing its border because of the alleged 'undesirables' who might be travelling in them. Accordingly, Bromley has incubated as a sprawling ghetto of quiet, middle-class ordinariness. It is a land of newly pressed jeans and proper behaviour.

Occasionally, a hapless group of French tourists will alight at Bromley South station, in the mistaken belief that it is London. You can see them wandering, aimless and bemused, around the endless dress shops and shoe emporia.

John Steel once asked such a group what they thought of Bromley. Their reply said it all.


(Photographs omitted)

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