Don’t Get Malled

Shopping malls – they are supposed to bring us style, economic growth and prosperity, but all is not as it seems behind the shiny mirrored facade. In the US – the birthplace of the mall – no new shopping malls have been built in the last five years, and this is because malls have over-saturated their own market, destroyed town centres, then finally put each other out of business, leading to 300 vacant ‘dead’ malls, over the last fifteen years (out of the 1,448 that were built over the 20th century). The history of the mall in the US is a sad one of unregulated construction and development, leaving a trail of economic and social destruction. The UK should have learned from this but in our desire to buy into the great American mall experiment we have been wilfully blind to consequences. In fact, on a thirty year time delay, we’re seeing the same patterns repeating here, along with a whole range of accompanying social problems. Over the last three years as I’ve researched a book on shopping malls and supermarket chains in northern Britain, I’ve come across the same kinds of stories of small human casualties again and again.

In Easterhouse, a housing scheme on the edge of Glasgow, pensioner Jim Mackay’s local corner shop closed down due to competition from the Glasgow Fort shopping mall. He now has to walk an extra half mile over a motorway intersection to get his groceries. “there’s nowhere left round here to buy an apple” he says. “You can get a bus from the city, but not from round here.” This is economic exclusion and a break down in any kind of social plan, while the mall thrives.

Iain Paton, (chartered town planner and specialist in retail planning and analysis for the private and public sectors) tells a similar story about a retail park outside Edinburgh. “Tesco exploited an anachronism in the planning system. They parachuted a very large store into an area given to B&Q on the outskirts, next to a motorway junction, next to a bypass, totally inaccessible by foot. About half a mile south of that there’s Wester Hailes, one of the most deprived areas in the country. Tesco shut down the local store in Wester Hailes, so people from there ended up having to somehow get along the motorway to do their shopping.”

This problem is now systemic throughout the UK. Paton says: “You’d be struggling to try to find a positive example of an out-of-town mall that’s accessible by anything other than private car. I can’t think of a mall that’s located within walking distance of a train station. And there’s no longer any government support for new bus routes. You may have a mall on paper that looks like it’s accessible by bus, but in reality it isn’t.”

In embracing the American mall development model, the UK has accidentally taken on board a very deliberate US policy vis-a-vis the urban poor; a plan that deliberately seeks to exclude those who cannot afford a car – to keep malls middle class and ‘safe.’ There are examples from the States which should act as a warning. Witness the news story from Buffalo, New York State, of an African American woman, who in attempting to get from her ‘project’ to the local regional mall, had to cross an eight lane motorway, and was fatally hit by a car.

Another problem that we’ve imported with the mall is town centre ‘desertification’. In the towns of Paisley and Renfrew (Again the examples I cite are from the Glasgow catchment area, because Glasgow is ‘the largest shopping centre in the UK’ (Kahawaldah, Birkin, Clarke 2010)), shop after local shop has closed in both town centres over the last decade, as a direct result of the opening of Braehead shopping mall, two miles away and Silverburn mall, four miles away. Those who have a car leave their towns to mall shop, leaving only those too poor to have car access as the only remaining consumers.

In East Kilbride, a new town built in the 1950s with a council-owned shopping centre at its heart, the centre now has around 28 per cent of its stores lying vacant, coming perilously close to the 35 per cent that leads to retail evacuation (the point where the existing stores suffer from a spiralling decline in retail traffic and decide to vacate leaving the centre empty). As a security man said: “It’s like a ghost town, I’m standing here all day doing nothing. I can’t see how folk are going to come back”. The abandonment of ‘new town’ centres for out-of-town malls has drastic consequences for such towns. When the central shopping centres get run down they attract crime and vandalism, when they close their doors, they leave these towns without a central social place – without a centre, they become dead, deserted places.

We should be learning from the American experience where town centre desertification was a huge problem from the 1870s to the late 1990s, leading to the infamous ‘inner city ghettos’. But we’re not. Only Wales within the UK has placed a moratorium on further out-of-town mall developments.

As Paton explains “If you go to any town centre you’ll see the impact out-of-town malls are having… If we want town centres not to survive, and we want to live more sustainably in the future, then we have to be smarter about the way we plan for these. The trouble at the moment is that the planning system is too vague and it allows developers with a lot of money to push the schemes through in unsustainable locations, claiming that they won’t damage town centres, when we know the opposite is true. Their methods marginalise local people, who effectively have no voice. The government needs to sort out national planning policy in retail.”

The central problem is that, currently, we don’t acknowledge the extent to which malls ‘leach’ trade away from other retail areas. Part of the reason for this is something that seems impossibly corrupt within a modern democratic country: the people who commission the impact studies for planning permission are not autonomous bodies but the mall developers themselves. So the books are invariably cooked to show acceptable levels of impact on surrounding areas. As Paton says “A lot of these impact assessments, to be perfectly honest, are skewed so that mall developers can get the go-ahead. They always come out with around a 10 per cent – 15 per cent negative impact on surrounding businesses – which is deemed acceptable… Reports should be commissioned by local authorities and paid for by the developers, or by an autonomous body that oversees every project with scrutiny.”

Also, rather surprisingly, there has never been, in the UK, any post-construction collating of data to see if the original stats were right, to test whether the impact was four per cent or 40 per cent. In England, even the gathering of such data has ceased completely. In Scotland there’s no requirement for local authorities to do this research. There’s a massive gap between the projected impact and the total lack of statistics on the real consequences. Impact studies are little more than a lot of complex paperwork that is never called to task.

It is time also to ask what good out-of-city malls and superstores do for anyone. Even Glasgow has learned that its two big out-of-town malls are now damaging their inner city regeneration plans and has placed a ban on further non-city centre developments. Who actually benefits from out-of-town malls anyway? Very often local councils think that they will see benefits from such large investment, but once the mall is built and the construction companies have been paid, the economic rewards for the local economy and the council coffers are generally very small. The jobs that are created are largely in mall construction, not in their running, which generates only a small number of unskilled jobs, and these are rarely new, but come from stores that close elsewhere, often directly as a result of the mall itself.

Furthermore, as the majority of corporations housed in any mall are multinational corporations, none of their profits go back into the local economy (and if they manage to evade tax, as such corporation frequently do, very little will go back into the national economy). In the US, local councils extracted occupation fees for mall tenants, but no such system exists here.

The people who benefit from such malls are the mall developers and the pension funds that are invested in them. In building on cheap greenfield or brownfield land and developing it into more highly valued retail property it is a game of property speculation. A land grab.

Over my years of research I’ve become increasingly convinced that mall and superstore developers have a predatory effect on local and national economies, and so I went back to the States to uncover some concrete positive examples of mall activism. To my surprise I found Jim Anderson (65), a university professor of History in Michigan (and a practicing Quaker), who, with a team of only twelve local activists in 1977, took on the Dayton Hudson Corporation and the local council and planning commission who had, between them, already agreed plans for a vast regional mall. Jim won the case against the mall through the US high court and through a vote in the local elections. “It’s like Jesus said” according to Jim, “give me twelve good people, we don’t need a cast of thousands.”

In taking on the corporation Jim learned pretty quickly that their most powerful card was legal fees and time. As Paton states, “Mall developers have the financial muscle to sit out any protest, and wait till their opponents funds dry up”. Running out of resources, Jim attempted two different strategies: firstly. getting the issue of the mall onto the ballot papers for the local elections and secondly, by studying and learning the bureaucratic language of town planning. Also Jim conducted his own empirical research into the consequences of mall development on another town. He discovered that DH had opened a mall on the outskirts of Grand Forks, North Dakota and he hired a local photographer to walk round Grand Fork photographing the empty stores and deserted streets. With this visual evidence he then started a print campaign. “What DH malls do to your town”, his slogan was “DON’T GET MALLED”. In the local elections, with the mall issue, democratically proven by the high court to be an issue that could exist on the ballet paper, the anti-mall campaign won by a margin of 1,500 votes. It’s an extraordinary example of a politically engaged and informed populace.

If we can take on America’s mistakes wholesale, then, hopefully, we can also learn from its successes. While Mall development has slowed in the UK, this is no time for complacency. As Paton points out, the next wave of threat to town centres and local autonomy in the UK, is superstores. If we want to defend our local towns from multinational property developers that take and give very little in return, we may all have to bone up on the jargon of planning permission and impact assessment. After all, the impact is on us, and no-one has realistically, to date, made any true assessment on the reality of that impact. We may have to do, as Jim Anderson did in Michigan, and stop trusting the so-called specialists and councils, and start taking matters into our own hands.