In the near future, my town is about to change. The concrete council buildings, its gloomy row of precinct shops, the library, all will be demolished before the end of the year. When I cycle past, or lock my bike nearby, and walk around this place, there is a sensation that something has already gone. When it was constructed, with the considered approval of the council, the town-planners and the townsfolk, perhaps everyone felt optimistic; everyone watched the concrete being poured, the metal insides forming and suspended ceilings being hung and imagined that this was to be something special and new.
Now, where the windows of some of the condemned shops used to be, there are colour panels that show glossy computer images of the next generation of shopping centre. It will be wooden-clad, none of that miserable concrete on show. There will be many more shops. There will be spaces designed for people to gather in and they will probably behave just how the computer supposed they would.
In the computer image, lots of people relax on the imaginary steps outside, have future conversations before or after they have shopped. Now, in the present moment, there is a small café/kiosk next to the doomed precinct, where a huddle of those who are also on the way out drink tea and gossip.. Some are old, some are unemployed, some of the teenagers there are yet to witness the full extent of their insignificance. The computer’s vision has not rendered the people with faces, they are empty avatars and they look nothing like the people here. Commerce requires not that we have souls, merely that we spend our time and money at its altar.
So where will the new spenders come from?
In the south of the town, a brownfield, derelict industrial estate is being torn down to make way for a new Taylor Wimpey housing development for 350+homes.
In the north, the iconic 87 year old Somerdale chocolate factory is now classified as greyfield and due for demolition to make way for a new Taylor Wimpey housing development for 700 homes (which is the same number of jobs lost by the factory’s closure). The money and employment created by the factory has moved to Poland. The buyers of these new houses will certainly add meat to the numbers of shoppers that the shopping precinct requires, but where will the money come from?
Not from Keynsham itself. Despite its grand programme of reinvention and expansion, the town itself provides few jobs outside of those running the shops. It is clear that Taylor Wimpey will make money here, but with Britain in a financial crisis, it seems unlikely that Keynsham will be a source of economic regeneration.
Making boxes for people to live in and shops for them to shop in is not enough. What defines a town? What about this place makes it worth spending a precious lifetime in? Will what is changing make us love it more?
What makes me care about the place is that, although it is sandwiched between Bristol and Bath, it has not yet been assimilated. The River Avon and the River Chew surround and run through Keynsham and link it to the hills and valleys of Somerset and Lansdown. Fields, woods and footpaths connect us to the countryside that insulates us from urban sprawl and subtly add to its dated, market-town charm. The greatest asset that Keynsham possesses is its surprising park that follows the River Chew and the slopes of the valley through the heart of the town. It is the one place where you can genuinely see people of all generations relaxing in the town.
Keynsham doesn’t need more shops and the most of the people here won’t be able to afford the new houses. What would be of fundamental value and bring lasting benefit here would be employment that actually benefited its residents. Willmott Dixon’s new £34m regeneration of the town hall and shopping precinct will improve the architectural appearance of the place, Taylor Wimpey’s thousand new homes will be places for people from somewhere to live in, and both will substantially swell the contract winners’ pockets, but neither will do anything at all to actually benefit the quality of life for the people that already live here.
In another land where the breeze and the
And the grass grew high and the feathers floated by
I stood and held your hand.
And nobody else’s hand will ever do
Nobody else will do
Then I awoke
Was this some kind of joke?
–In another land, The Rolling Stones
I stood and held your hand.