The many recent references in the Advertiser to empty shops in the town centre and the ever-widening urbanisation of the town’s former boundaries may be indicative of the need to abandon our traditional thinking in regard to the separation of retailing and housing.
Although the council certainly influences the rate of increase of empty shop units by the business rates demanded of retailers, the public are also influential through their increasing use of online purchasing. Equally, it is the expansion of the population, partly affected by the mass movement of people and the increasing power of science to moderate the death rate, that increases the demand for ever more housing. As the latter problem is beyond the power of councils to control, perhaps the former problem requires a new approach. Several of Harrogate’s most significant shopping streets grew from localities that originally were entirely residential. All of Montpellier Parade, from the Crown Hotel up to Bettys, was built for residential use of one kind or another, Bettys being the only exception, the great majority of the buildings consisted of shops with living accommodation above. The same applies to James Street, with the exceptions of Hooper’s store, a pair of banks, and a 1960s unit. Originally, James Street was entirely residential. Cheltenham Crescent and Cheltenham Parade were wholly residential, save for the old Wesleyan School room, and all could revert to 100 per cent residential use. Tower Street was a further example, and Victoria Avenue almost another. Station Parade, from Bower Road to York Place, was filled with villas and terrace housing, many of which remain. For much of the 19th century, Parliament Street north of Oxford Street was also residential. In other words, many of the streets currently regarded as being purely retail areas consist of shops placed within buildings intended for residential usage. I suggest that rather than insisting on the rigid retention of zones of permitted use, our planners should consider a far more flexible use of the town’s buildings, and consider seriously the prospect of encouraging certain selected retail streets returning to their original residential usage. This would reduce the extent of areas blighted by empty retail units, and lessen the pressure to urbanise the fringes of our town. Can anyone envisage the Victoria Centre converted into apartments, and if so, would the planners have a seizure?