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”No, ma’am – your generation ruined the high street and we’re putting it right”

After over fifty years of sales and trading, Stockton’s Castlegate is to be demolished in order to create a new five-acre park, art installations and a land bridge to the River Tees. While many will be delighted to see the end of their 1970s shopping centre and the opportunity to revive the riverside, some are particularly disappointed – especially the older generation, which has rightly raised the importance of valuing history. But which part of it?

Architect John Poulson was invited to design a shopping centre that would create opportunity, leisure and – additionally – barricade the then polluted river from pedestrian view. But more than a year on from the first national lockdown, many shopping centres have emerged quieter than ever – even desolate. Although some forms of local retail might revive and even prosper, the impact of online shopping and the huge cost of giving new life to ageing structures have sounded the death knell for these once innovative and ambitious high street extensions. In comparison the luxury, safety and ‘green’ advantages of open spaces in town centres, in Stockton and elsewhere, have made parks ever more popular. The River Tees now has the potential for its own revival – a celebration of the town’s industrial past as much as a new leisure destination. 

The demolition plans have provided an interesting discussion about how we value the past and what should take precedence. There’s no right answer of course, except to ensure that:

  • steps are taken to understand the value to different groups within the community of both the shopping centre and the river
  • all options are properly and openly presented
  • members of the community have an equal opportunity to consider them
  • the council listens to and acts on those opinions 

Judging by existing standards, this is more easily said than done. Vested interests so often come into play and drive decision-making on capital projects of this kind. In this case the recent experience of the pandemic has shifted local perspectives on Stockton’s history and has determined the greater value of a park and reduced need for a shopping centre. However, historical and civic continuity is being maintained to a degree, with a new reduced retail offer alongside a new council headquarters. Councillor Beall added in a conversation about the new proposals: “My mum once said to me ‘I don’t know what you’re doing at that council – you’re ruining that high street’” with his response being “‘no, ma’am – your generation ruined the high street and we’re putting it right”.

£41 million from the Tees Valley Combined Authority (TVCA) and the Future High Streets Fund has now paved the way for the demolition and creation of the new park.

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