Title: The LA in context: mutual enterprise at Aylesbury
Pages: 58 - 65
THE LA IN CONTEXT - 1: MUTUAL ENTERPRISE AT AYLESBURY
Local authority and developer joined forces at Aylesbury to put together a £3 millions shopping precinct, opened three years ago. It's a startling commercial success, and the old town centre has benefited.
Aylesbury is typical of many medium sized towns which stand to gain and lose by central area redevelopment and present an intriguing planning predicament. The town centre, while of historic value, is not unique. Development in urban conservation areas like Aylesbury can be performed furtively behind historic facades; this has happened at Newbury and there are similar plans for Stratford. Another way is to build a new shopping centre beyond the old high street and market place, which could leave the ancient core doomed to an unpeopled decay. Yet this was the solution adopted for Aylesbury and, two years after its completion, it is becoming possible to see why it has been successful.
Aylesbury is bounded to the south by the Chilterns, to the west by the river Thame. As a GLC overspill town its population has risen briskly from 24 000 in 1950 to its present level of almost 40 000, and is expected to reach 60 000 by 1980. Many of the more recent inhabitants work in London. Marylebone is only an hour down the line, and four or five commuter laden trains leave Aylesbury each morning. But the bulk of the population have jobs in the area, if not within the town itself. Industry, most of it light to middleweight in character and almost all of it clean, has grown spectacularly in the last ten years, complementing the traditional Aylesbury activities of printing and agriculture.
In two years' time the town centre will be enclosed by an inner ring road, of which all but the northern arms are now complete. A conservation area embracing well over half the town centre was fixed in 1969. This runs from the delightfully classical County Hall (Thomas Harris 1740) and the less delightfully neo-Georgian County Offices (C Riley 1929-39) uphill through the market place to the tower and spire of St Mary's Church. Many of the facades are Georgian, though the structure behind them is often much older. In places the buildings form elegant groups - the northern corner of Market Square and the residential terrace fronting St Mary's churchyard are two with particular character - but the charm of the old town lies more in its narrow, quiet streets and interlocking squares than in individual architectural distinction.
Aylesbury's central area redevelopment- a mammoth £3 millions shopping centre and bus station linked to a new county office block, registrar's office and public library - lies between the southern boundary of the conservation area and the ring road. As an example of a local authority working smoothly in harness with a developer, the shopping precinct is a model of its kind. Like all redevelopment exercises of its type it took a long time to mature, so that although the precinct started to do business in 1969, the preliminary negotiations began a full decade before.
A number of factors made the choice of site inevitable. First, its position hard against the ring road, allowing it to be penetrated by buses, service vehicles and cars. Second, the derelict condition of most existing buildings. Third, the borough council's decision to shift the market out of the traffic-insulated market square into the nearest convenient trading position. And, fourth, the council's determination to create a physical link between the shopping precinct and the new council offices and library.
Another crucial factor was the lie of the land. The site slopes downhill fairly sharply from the north-western corner, which has allowed the all-important bus station and servicing roads to be slotted in beneath the shopping deck. Car parking for shoppers and council workers alike is stacked onto a narrow strip of land between the station and the ring road.
This, in outline, was the planning thesis presented at the public inquiry into the comprehensive development area in 1962. "The Ministry returned our proposals without so much as a dot or a comma added," says Fred Pooley, Bucks County Architect and Planning Officer. He recalls, though, some of the vehement objections from the displaced traders (all of whom were offered 21 year leases in the new scheme) and derives wry amusement over the way in which the Bucks Herald, who were also displaced, handled the public inquiry (POOLEY THE PLANNER GRILLED ran one headline).
Most of the ill feeling has evaporated now. That 1962 issue of the Bucks Herald featured the evidence of counsel for Joseph Lucas and Co, a local furniture retail company who objected on the grounds that the rents would be quite beyond the reach of a small family concern. Today Lucas have the largest frontage of any of the local firms on the precinct and report booming business. On the same page an ill-timed round of interviews with local traders by the women's page columnist revealed their view that Aylesbury was under shopped, although at the inquiry some of the same people complained that the plan was too ambitious for a town this size.
The developers, Hammersons, got the job in competition with two other firms. Although they're keeping the financial details to themselves. Hammersons make no secret of their delight at the way things are shaping at Aylesbury. Aylesbury too, who are on the receiving end of a fixed ground rent and an undisclosed slice of the equity, regard the precinct as a first rate commercial success. All but two small units out of a total 290 000 sq ft of retail selling space have been taken. and that, judged by the sluggish standards of many town centre schemes, is extremely good going. Hammersons attribute much of their success to impeccable collaboration from the borough council and the county planners, and to the fact that two powerful shopping magnets - a bus station and a market - were brought into the scheme.
These factors helped pull in some of the big multiple traders.
Woolworths were enticed away from undersized premises on High Street to establish a giant store, their second largest in Britain, in the new development. Comprising 600 000 linear feet of counter space spread up through three floors from the lower ground, bus station level, it is the cornerstone of the scheme. Sainsbury occupy half the ground floor of the Woolworths block almost slicing it in two. Other shops, Boots and Timothy Whites, Tesco, Sketchleys and the gas and electricity boards are strung along a terrace surrounding an island of smaller shops and a sunken piazza. Mothercare, forsaking their policy of taking a site near Marks & Spencer, are placed by the Market Square entrance to the precinct. Above Boots, balancing the municipal offices which flank the other side of the passageway to Market Square, is a modest bowling alley supplementing the meagre entertainments offered by the rest of the town.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays there are over 50 thriving open market stalls in the sunken piazza and below at lower ground level are a similar number of permanent covered stalls offering, between them, everything from guitars to cheap clothes and textiles. The bulk of the stallholders, outside and in, moved from the old market square, but others came from London, attracted by the facilities and the crowds. Business is good, say the stallholders, but they have missed some passing trade, especially in the holiday season when Midlanders dashed through on route to the South Coast. When they were moved from the Market Square some older traders left Aylesbury but the gaps they left in the market community are already being covered over.
Kingsbury Square, the old bus station, is so small and intimate that it is now difficult to believe there were ever any buses there. This is the sort of area where businesses could fail overnight when the major source of custom has dried up - in fact they have refused to die. The tobacconist/barber still retains his hairdressing clientele and hence his selfgenerated passing trade, the two cafes bask in the ease with which customers can now park their cars and the square will shortly have a newsagent for the first time since before the war. All the traders admitted that they had short periods of uneasiness as the full scope of the plans hit them, but fall-off in business was every bit as brief.
It's not difficult to see why. One explanation is conservatism amongst the farming people who still appreciate the older parts of the town with its virtually unchanged retailing methods. There's also the rising population and the fact that the new precinct has made Aylesbury not so much a market town as a regional centre. It's not unusual to hear the shopkeepers say that they had people from St Albans, Letchworth and even Berkhamsted coming in the other day.
One major factor has held the High Street together - Marks & Spencer, secure in their reputation and unrivalled drawing power, stuck to their pitch. They are accompanied by the London based David Greig and, lower down, the Co-op. Marks have even extended their store and report healthy sales. They say they could extend further within their existing bounds by displacing outmoded selling points.
Although the High Street traders' association did not organise any resistance to the planning proposals they realised at an early stage that the planners meant to direct shoppers to the new precinct. They countered with an advertising campaign emphasising the friendly service and availability of wide ranges of smaller slow moving items classed out of precinct shops by the higher rents demanding quick turnover and more efficient use of storage space.
One regrettable effect of the development may yet prove to be its influence on the village shops as they are gradually reduced to supplying only the small items forgotten in the once or twice weekly trip to Aylesbury. Villagers and farmers alike say prices are rising sharply at home and that they can easily recoup their 20-30p bus fares from wise buys in the town. Some village shops may survive the ordeal by converting into minisupermarkets (and thereby creating planning nightmares of another sort) but a seriously high proportion will face closure in the next few years.
Any doubts one may have about the Aylesbury scheme are architectural. The design, by Bernard Engle and Partners, knits in well with the cavernous bus station and makes a pleasant enough link with the market square. Smaller elements - the single storey shops, the sunken market piazza, even the Brutalist street furniture - have all been pleasantly handled. But the materials are ill chosen and used in a highly undisciplined fashion; while the larger elements, in particular the great concrete cube of Woolworths, make a disastrous impression when seen from the market square.
Bernard Engle's rugged horizontal forms with their brown coarse aggregate cladding panels and Fred Pooley's equally rugged vertical office tower with its grey cladding make an ill-assorted pair. The Pooley scheme - a library and 12 storey office tower planted on a raised courtyard - must be one of the best known local authority buildings in the country. Not every one in Aylesbury is overfond of Fred's Fort (as Ian Nairn once described the tower) but Pooley reckons that public opinion is swinging his way. From his office on the tenth floor he sees a prosperous future for the town, particularly since the decision was made not to site the controversial third London airport at nearby Cublington.
The main expansion thrust will be into the Vale of Aylesbury to the north. But Pooley hopes that most of the Vale will be declared an Area of Outstanding Beauty, to drive a green wedge between Aylesbury and Milton Keynes. If that happens the town will be enclosed on all sides by a green belt, and development will hopefully be held in check. A population of
60 000, making huge demands for leisure and industrial space (let alone housing) is about the maximum that Aylesbury can afford if it is to retain its present scale.
A. Conservation area
B. Ring road
C. Shopping precinct
D. County offices
E. Car park
G. New market (covered market below)
H. Municipal offices
J. Bus station
K. Public library
Aylesbury's conservation area, containing monuments like St Mary's Church, top left, the old County Hall, above right, and pleasant spaces like Temple Square, top right, full of amenable places to pass the time of day over a drink, above, wraps round two sides of the new precinct
Freshly planted trees have replaced stalls in the old Market Square. The view is different too, with the huge block of Woolworths a grating contrast to the Georgian pub on the corner. At the heart of the precinct the bus station, far left, is conveniently sited beneath the shopping deck and next door to the covered market above. Aylesbury's symbolic ducks stand guard at the point where the big multiples give way to the smaller trading units. Sunken market place, left and overleaf, does brisk trade on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Raised restaurant provides grandstand view
Aylesbury contains few buildings of historic significance, but its distinctive townscape of small scale, friendly buildings - such as the North side of Market Square, above left, and Temple Street, above, is well worth preserving. Traditional butcher's shop, left, is holding its own outside the precinct
County Offices and library are plugged in to the southern end of the , precinct, opposite top. All three are linked, above and below ground level to a multi-storey car park at the other side of the ring road above. Municipal offices block, left, overlooks the precinct