Happy 20th Birthday, Victoria Shopping Centre

Harrogate's Victoria Shopping Centre, which was opened on November 9, 1992.
Harrogate's Victoria Shopping Centre, which was opened on November 9, 1992.

By John Grainger, Business editor

It’s not often you get to celebrate a building’s birthday, but we can this week, because the Victoria Shopping Centre in Harrogate will be 20 years old tomorrow (November 9, 2012).

When it first opened its doors on November 9, 1992 – against a backdrop of entertainment from clowns, jugglers and strolling players – Harrogate’s mayor, Mrs Barbara Hillier, said the £50 million development would put the town even more squarely on the international map.

That claim was, perhaps, rather too bold – there’s little sign as yet of foreign visitors landing at Leeds-Bradford and making a beeline for TK Maxx – but it has at least become thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the town centre. It’s a place where big names such as the Body Shop, WH Smith and Starbucks rub shoulders with smaller vendors of sweets, greetings cards and womenswear, and impressively, each year attracts six million shoppers (yes, six million, according to the electronic people-counters at the doors).

As David Horth, who has been centre manager for 12 years, says: “In our 20 years, I’m proud to say Victoria Shopping Centre has become the hub of the town centre and very much part of the local community.”

In fact, it has become so “bedded in” that, even for people old enough to remember, it’s hard to recall what went before.

It took the place of a 1930s market hall, which had greengrocers, butchers, hardware shops and haberdashers, and echoed to the thrum of trade. It undeniably had character and many people mourned the passing of a slice of “real” life when it was demolished.

Others, though, were glad to see the back of such a shabby building and felt the new centre was just what the town had been crying out for.

As with all new buildings in public spaces, what took its place divided opinion.

Those who loved it saw what the architects, Cullearn & Phillips of Manchester, had intended: a structure of refinement, inspired by Palladio’s 16th-century Basilica at Vicenza. The chairman of the development company, Speyhawk, was firmly in this camp (but then, he would be), hailing it as “the most beautiful shopping centre in England”.

Those who loathed it tended to agree more with Bill Bryson, who, in his book Notes from a Small Island, wrote that it was “heartbreakingly awful, the worst kind of pastiche architecture – a sort of Bath Crescent meets Crystal Palace with a roof by B&Q”.

Bryson went on to say that one of the most disliked features of the centre, the figures perched along the top, looked “as if two dozen citizens of various ages are about to commit mass suicide”.

(They may quite possibly have been driven to the edge by trying to contact the centre’s owner, a secretive City of London-based company called Coal Pension Properties, which initially refused to speak to this newspaper about its business.)

But what the centre undeniably gave Harrogate’s town centre was floorspace – 138,600 square feet of it.

It originally had a basement to accommodate the market traders and an outdoor “amphitheatre” of steps leading down to it. In time, though, the basement market fell victim to the changing nature of the town centre and the amphitheatre, which had become a little-used litter-trap, was filled in.

Mr Horth, who is employed by outsourcing firm Capita Symonds, says: “Larger retail units were created at lower ground level to enable the centre to bring national retailers to the town and continue the enviable mix of independent and national retailers Harrogate has to offer.

“This also stops leakage from Harrogate, preventing shoppers from going to Leeds or York, keeping the local economy thriving.”

Other changes made in the centre under Mr Horth’s stewardship include some major environmental advances, including rainwater harvesting and waterless urinals; the centre is now a zero-landfill site.

It’s all suggestive of a confident and clearly-defined approach to “customer capture” which seems to be working; while other town centres are struggling, Harrogate’s is doing rather nicely.

“Trade’s really good here,” says Fatima Choudhury, shop manager of Bliss. “The only downside is the vacant shops.”

It is true that vacant units are the bane of shopping centres, reducing profitability and adversely affecting their neighbours’ businesses. But the Victoria centre does pretty well on this score.

Only four of the 35 units are vacant, and of the three on the ground floor (near Ms Choudhury’s shop) two were vacated not because the tenant chose to trade elsewhere, but because they were national brands which went into administration – Julian Graves in July and La Senza last December.

Efforts are being made to fill the empty shops and big names are still being secured.

Mr Horth says: “The recent letting to Jessops and discussions with several retailers to take the remaining vacant units point in the right direction for the centre and town, bucking the national trend.”

He added: “There are doubtless still testing times ahead with the economy, but the future for Victoria Shopping Centre looks healthy.”

That’s good news for the 250 staff who work there each week, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

The festive period promises to be particularly busy at the centre – footfall typically increases by up to 30 per cent, according to lettings agent Jones Lang LaSalle.

According to Ms Choudhury, the upturn in trade started as long ago as mid-October, but the official start to the season comes with the switch-on of the Christmas lights on Thursday, November 22.

And for the whole of the following month, those electronic people-counters will be going crazy, clicking away as Christmas shoppers turn the place upside down.

But let’s hope the New Year doesn’t see too much of a lull. If only to keep the place busy and keep the employees in work, let’s hope those shoppers keep coming back.

In other words, Victoria Shopping Centre, many happy returns.