Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Joanna Lumley is going to be our neighbour!

Estate agents in Northumberland must have been popping the Cava this week. In a gloriously luvvie moment, national treasure Joanna Lumley declared that she had so enjoyed opening Morpeth’s new shopping mall, she was going to buy a house in Northumberland and come and live here.

Property values in the Wansbeck valley immediately doubled, although the following morning my bank manager wasn’t entirely convinced by my suggestion of a loan secured on the possibility that Ms Lumley might have been serious. I suspect she uses the same speech for every shopping centre she opens, in which case she must own a lot of houses. Mind you, she can probably afford them: the owners of the new Sanderson Arcade must have paid for quite a few bottles of Bollinger to entice her up here.

I know I shall ruffle some feathers, but personally I’ve never found anything I actually want to buy in Morpeth. For me, every self-respecting town needs three essentials: a Waitrose, a well-stocked delicatessen and a fresh fish shop; Morpeth has none of these. So, nicely designed as it is, I don’t quite get the point of the new arcade. It has a Marks and Spencer for underwear and for people who can’t cook and a Laura Ashley for people who like to pretend they live in the 70s. There does appear to be a very nice homemade chocolate emporium, but I’m supposed to be on a diet.

I’m happy for the new face of Morpeth to prove me wrong. In fact, on Saturday I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and was about to set off with my M&S card when I bumped into some disappointed friends who had just returned from the town having failed to find a parking space. Now that’s British planning for you: build a brand new shopping precinct, but don’t worry about the parking. No wonder Tesco and Sainsbury see Morpeth as a prime target for out of town superstores. According to my friends, normally reserved residents were desperately screeching round Morrison’s car park, screaming at each other for precedence over the elusive spaces.

Britain doesn’t really get shopping malls. In most civilised countries they build them on top of big multi-storey car parks; Morpeth’s is built around a bus station (or, as it’s now called, a “transport interchange”). This is despite the fact that most people like to go shopping by car – it’s one of the few benefits of the modern age. Towns that want to be taken seriously as shopping destinations should take note, particularly Newcastle, which is soon to open its new improved Eldon Square shopping centre. Having had the vision to provide the region with some of the best transport infrastructure in the country complete with a nice fat motorway streaming right into the centre, Newcastle goes and spoils it by having some incompetent planner inventing “No Car” lanes and making parking as difficult as possible.

In London’s Shepherds Bush, the BBC is located right next to the best-designed shopping centre I’ve ever encountered. You enter the parking lot and follow the signs for the store you want; a series of red and greed lights guides you straight to an empty parking space. I was admiring it earlier this week while I there to pitch a new idea for a television series in which rocket scientists and other assorted geniuses try to solve society’s most irritating problems. Top of the list would be how to find a parking space in Morpeth. The BBC loved the idea.

Rather than hiring a genius, there’s probably a simpler solution for Morpeth. Persuade Joanna Lumley to stick to her word and become a resident. She sorted out the Gurkhas: I’m sure it would take her just a couple of hours to sort out the parking.

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