Why more shops will not regenerate Llanelli
Pugh Brothers: the name on this once smart building in Cowell Street, Llanelli, harks back to the last century, when it denoted a smart, family-owned furniture store.
The store closed in autumn 2004. Now, at street level the Smith & Jones pub sells £1.99 breakfasts, and the adjacent betting shop is there to offer the prospect of a free lunch.
A stroll round the corner into Stepney Street reveals the breadlines on which many residents try to exist. Pawnbrokers are back, big time, with firms including Cash Generator and Cash@Maxx. The bargain shelves in discount stores like Poundland are cornerstones of Llanelli shopping. The profits generated by shoppers’ £s rarely stay in Llanelli, though — they disappear down the M4, for distribution to the directors and shareholders, wherever in the world they may be.
At the other end of the modestly-sized St Elli shopping centre is an ASDA superstore, with its own extensive car park. ASDA has a doorway opening into the shopping precinct, but seems self-contained.
It is designed to be a one-stop shop, after all.
A mile to the west, on the huge Trostre and adjacent Pemberton retail parks, the car parking is free and plentiful. In fact, much of the vast space was empty.
Trostre has Tesco, Pemberton has Morrisons and Parc y Scarlets. The supporting stores are big national chains — PC World, Currys, Argos, Homebase, Comet, Halfords and many more, the same occupants that we see on retail parks all over the UK.
The retail parks were supposed to be regenerative magnets. They are magnets, but have proved the opposite of regenerative because providing a shop is not the same as increasing local cash flows. The amount of disposable income in the hands of households does not expand magically every time a new shop, or cafe, or leisure attraction, opens its doors. At least, if the shops are locally owned, the cash circulates locally. Money spent in national and international chains with branches in Llanelli is, after the wages have been paid, soon on its journey to distant horizons.
Llanelli has received emergency cash infusions in regeneration schemes masterminded by Carmarthenshire County Council. The current regeneration efforts date from 2008 when the Eastern Quarter development, close to the ASDA car park, was being planned. ITV Wales carried a news report in October 2008 about Llanelli becoming a ghost town, because of the Trostre and Pemberton retail parks. The council protested that the report “virtually ignored all the work, improvements and regeneration which have been happening”.*
Now in 2012, the Eastern Gateway development is a bulky construction site costing £25 million and renamed East Gate, to contain more shops and cafés, six restaurants, a Travelodge budget hotel, a six-screen cinema, 20,000 square feet of offices, and 240 parking spaces. East Gate is on a rather grand scale.
The current redevelopments are costing £60 million. The major funders are Carmarthenshire County Council and the European Regional Development Fund. Apart from East Gate, refurbishment of the library has a £3.5 million budget, the restoration of Llanelly House, opposite St Elli’s Church, has a £6 million price tag, and a theatre and creative industries quarter in the former Zion Chapel and Old Sunday School are taking £14.8 million. Improvements to the town centre account for the balance of the £60 million — cosmetic changes, a “showcase” to “promote the vision and provide information about the regeneration”, and a “Centre for Economic Inclusion”.**
£60 million, if divided between every adult and child in Carmarthenshire, would come to about £333 each. It’s a lot to pour into one town which has already been regenerated several times with lavish numbers of shopping opportunities. The latest incarnation, with its offices and creative zone, may generate some incomes and jobs, but the emphasis is still on spending, mostly in outlets run by organisations which move profits out of the region.
What will happen to stores on the retail parks when East Gate opens? Towns full of pawnshops are not Bond Street or Mayfair, and Llanelli’s shoppers are already focused on stretching their incomes to the maximum. If new look Llanelli draws customers from Swansea, Neath and points east, businesses there will languish. Money in people’s pockets and wallets is not elastic, and the plastic elastic has shrunk. The rise of online commerce in an era of falling real incomes means that shop numbers ought to fall, not rise. Are there other, better ways of spending £60 million to regenerate Llanelli? It’s too late to change direction now, but worth keeping a close eye on the economic impact.
The Pugh Brothers store was once the epitome of progress, after all.
Patricia Dodd Racher, May 18th 2012
* ‘Traders’ anger at TV slur’, http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk, October 16th 2008.
** Details on http://www.trefllanellitown.com.