The future of Grays town centre – imposed change from above

Recently, we read this detailed piece on Thurrock Nub News about the future of Grays town centre: Damned and disparaged – but council plans multi-million revamp of Grays High Street that will see banks and shops bought and demolished and homes built on their sites. There’s a lot of detail in this piece and we recommend that you give it a thorough read rather than us having to re-hash it here on this post.

Look, we know that the town centre of Grays is looking a bit ‘tired’ and is in need of some tender loving care and refurbishment. That applies to many town centres across the country at the moment – Grays is far from alone in this respect. It’s reasonable to assume that residents and visitors to the town centre would like to see some improvements to make it an attractive place to come to. The question is, how can this be achieved?

It’s pretty clear that it won’t be achieved by engaging an international planning consultancy, Steer, and paying them £235,000 (and possibly more) to have a look at the town centre and come up with proposals that only someone outside of Grays would think are appropriate. Here’s a link to the report from Steer: Grays Future High Street Fund – Business Case. It’s a nice little earner producing a report that in a fair few places, states the bleeding obvious! Yes, we know that the surfacing on the pedestrianised length of Grays High Street is in poor repair. It didn’t have to be like this – all that was required was for Thurrock Council to do their job and maintain the surface properly and ensure that any utility companies digging up the High Street reinstated it properly. It really is a no brainer…

The report states that Grays is a ‘needs based’ shopping area. Fine… it’s not going to compete with either Lakeside of Bluewater. For that matter, neither Lakeside or Bluewater have the kind of retail offering that will keep people’s bellies full – Grays does have that offering. It’s not a crime to be a ‘needs based’ shopping centre as opposed to an ‘aspirational’ one. When the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre was built in Stratford, it was predicted that the older Stratford Centre wouldn’t survive. Wrong – it’s as busy as it ever was, if not busier as it has re-orientated itself to be a needs based shopping centre for the local community.

The report also notes: “There is a weak restaurant and café offering: with most of the offer aimed at fast food.” Well, one really good cafe, the Angel, was demolished to make way for the extension to Thurrock Council’s offices in New Road so it’s pretty clear where the finger of blame should be pointed. Also, we suspect the owners of the two Turkish meze restaurants and the two Indian restaurants in the town centre would beg to differ with Steer’s disparaging assessment of the eating options on offer.

This is the kind of report you would expect from outside consultants with their accompanying baggage of expectations and to be blunt, prejudices. It shows no understanding of the history of Grays and what has happened to make the town what it is today. Like anything emanating from a developer, it treats the town centre as a blank canvas upon which they impose what they think should constitute a town centre with no reference to what the residents of Grays actually want.

Then there’s the question mark hanging over the Grays Shopping Centre. At the moment it’s unclear whether a plan to pretty much demolish it and replace it with high rise apartment blocks and shops at ground level will go ahead. This comes alongside Thurrock Council buying up properties along the High Street with a view to engaging a developer to demolish them and replace them with apartment blocks with shops, cafes, etc. at ground level. As with Basildon town centre, there’s a push to shift the emphasis towards residential. Also, as with Basildon, it’s pretty clear that the target market for these apartments will be young commuters into London. With Grays only just over half an hour away from Fenchurch Street, it’s a tempting demographic for developers to target. Obviously, if that’s the demographic the council and developers want to target, it’s not surprising that they would want to re-orientate what will remain of the shopping options towards them. Hence, we have what is to all intents, a process of retail ‘social cleansing’ underway.

Then there’s the proposed pedestrian underpass which will replace the existing level crossing. Sure, there are issues with the existing level crossing but surely, it’s not beyond the wit of humanity to solve them without building an underpass costing millions while at the same time, clearing out the small businesses that run south from the level crossing round to the entrance of the railway station. Businesses that like those cleared away to make room for the extension to the council offices, are mainly run by people of migrant origin. You could be forgiven for thinking there’s a bit of a pattern emerging here…

To put it bluntly, what’s being lined up for Grays town centre is a project of social engineering aimed at attracting a more affluent demographic into the town. It’s the existing residents who will be paying the price for this as the shops they rely on are swept away. This may well explain why there has been minimal consultation with residents asking for their views and suggestions as to how the town centre could be improved. Because what the residents would like to see happen would not fit in with what the council or developers want to impose on the town and its people. The people need to make their voices heard in no uncertain terms…

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