Has coronavirus sent the out-of-town shopping centre packing?

It used to be a big day out for Mancunians: a shopping trip to the Trafford Centre, a stroll around its Barton Square fountain surrounded by dolphins, and a bite to eat in the Orient food hall, themed as a steam ship. Trips like that ground to a halt during lockdown, and now they may well never happen again. The Trafford Centre’s owner, Intu, which also owns the Lakeside shopping complex in Essex, has until Friday to reach a deal to save its centres, swamped by debt.

If Intu fails, it will be more than the end of retail days out. It will bring down the curtain on an idea rooted in the Thatcher era: that the problems of post-industrial, urban Britain can be solved by a few government grants, carrier bags full of jumpers and trainers, and a pitstop for a pizza at one of the sparkly shopping malls built on the sites where industry used to employ thousands.

The shopping centres were the longest lasting products of that world, often created by northern businessmen who spotted the potential of derelict sites, close to motorway connections and in their own localities, where factories and steelworks had been bulldozed.

Some of these places took decades to open. The Trafford Centre was created by John Whittaker, who was from a mill-owning family. He fought a long battle to take over the Manchester Ship Canal Company in the 1980s, out of which eventually came the Trafford Centre, which helped make him a multimillionaire.

Others got rich quicker. Take John Hall, son of a miner, and a former mining surveyor himself, who built MetroCentre in Gateshead, which opened in 1986 on the site of the former Dunston power station near the River Tyne. Hall was typical of these shopping centre developers, with their chutzpah and charm. They convinced the Department for Environment and local authorities to put in enough money to make the deals work, and brought in financiers to provide the rest. In the case of MetroCentre, it was the Church Commissioners who backed this temple to capitalism. Hundreds flocked there for its official opening – me included, in my role at the time as a business reporter. As I gazed around its 186,000 sq metres (2m sq ft) of retail space, clutching my gold embossed invitation card, Hall said to me proudly: “The buffet’s a quarter of a mile long.”

Outside Sheffield, two developers as brash and breezy as Hall were fighting over who would succeed in creating South Yorkshire’s own version of MetroCentre. Paul Sykes, another son of a miner and a tyre dealer-cum-property developer, and Eddie Healey, who worked in his family paint firm before running a DIY chain and MFI, both bought land off the M1, and eventually joined forces to create the 140,000 sq metre Meadowhall on the site of Hadfield’s former East Hecla steelworks.

But what did they achieve? You could say they provided people with a lot of pleasure: places like Meadowhall, and Bluewater in Kent, built on an old quarry, each attract around 30 million visitors a year.

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Yet today those shopping centres look like the relics of a past quick fix to the problems thrown up by Thatcherism. Public money was used to help create low-skilled jobs fast, but failed to help the no-longer-needed smelters and welders train in new technologies. Local authorities, desperate to see some new employers and jobs emerge in their decimated industrial heartlands, backed public transport links to these new, out-of-town venues. But existing city centres, such as Sheffield’s, saw footfall drop dramatically and, despite the new tram and bus routes, most people drove to the centres’ free car parks. Green they were not. What they did above all was make individuals – developers such as Hall, Sykes, Healey and Whittaker – very rich. In the case of Whittaker, he sold the Trafford Centre to Capital Shopping Centres, now Intu, in 2011. He joined the board and is now deputy chairman of Intu, which is one of Britain’s large property companies.

Intu’s troubles had already started well before lockdown. But with evidence growing that people have been shopping nearer home and increasingly online in the past few months, the out-of-town habit may well have been shed for good. We may look back with some fondness to the days when we flexed the plastic during a shopping-centre splurge, but the planet may well breathe a sigh of relief if lockdown puts an end to these leftovers from the Thatcher era, and the future becomes local. The centres were a monument to that 80s revolution. It turns out they were built not to last.

Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of the Tablet

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