1 Aug 2011

Brian Clough City (West)

Eighteenth century pioneers: made in Derby

According to the European Union Brian Clough City has a metropolitan population of 1.5 million, larger than Glasgow, the second city of the Empire. It is called Brian Clough City because the only thing its two constituent cities could agree on was that Brian Clough is God. Brian Clough City is of course the Nottingham/Derby agglomeration and exists only in the minds of bureaucrats.

From here to St Pancras (cf. Rowland Ordish)

Defining cities is difficult, and nowhere more so than Nottingham which the Centre for Cities described as the most ‘under-bounded’ city in England. Less than half of the people who think they live there actually reside in the administrative city. From my house in West Bridgford I can hear the crowds baying at the City Ground and the thwack of leather on willow at Trent Bridge yet apparently I live in a rural community, according to the ONS. The data, being based on arbitrary local authority boundaries, has no geographic, social or economic integrity and so makes a mockery of the endless league tables beloved of government and lazy journos like Phil and Kirsty on Location, Location, Location. Arbitrary, or lets be honest gerrymandered, local authority boundaries also make it pretty impossible to have any sensible planning or economic development strategy for a big city.

What a Pickle

Debenhams - deserted for Westfield

But then, silly me, I was forgetting about partnerships and particularly Local Economic Partnerships, which of course must be business-led. In the Pickles imagination (if that is not a contradiction in terms) they will spearhead regeneration and development after the bonfire of quangos. Officially promoted partnerships are a bit like when your mum invited a friend for tea and you had to play with her kid even though neither of you really wanted to. The characteristics of partnerships are wariness, relentless positivism, opaqueness about objectives and conclusions, scarcely concealed vested interests and the inevitability of buggins' turn. The most fundamental characteristic of all is a lack of democratic accountability - indeed otherwise you wouldn’t need a ‘partnership’ in the first place.

In the glory days football was egalitarian

There are strong economic and commuting links between Nottingham and Derby.
However these are very definitely separate cities, separated not only by a narrow Green Belt but by deep historical, political and social prejudices. The (literal) Derby match with Forest stirs strong, even bitter, passions although you could argue that this visceral rivalry actually demonstrates the closeness of the relationship of the two cities. By contrast Forest fans are pretty indifferent to Leicester, which is much more of a real rival to Nottingham than Derby, always very much the junior partner.

This is Derby

Coming soon? Renewed interwar civic Derby

Derby City, unlike Nottingham, pretty much covers the built up area and has a population of nearly 250,000. Ian Nairn called it ‘that most Midland of Midland towns’, but for me it has the feel of a town in the foothills of the Pennines. Nottingham and Leicester are very obviously east midland cities with their long terraces of hard red brick but Derby has softer brick, more stone and stucco and looks and feels less unremittingly urban. It evokes somewhere like Worcester. The Derwent flows through the centre and the city is almost entirely surrounded by attractive rolling countryside full of NT houses, although the power stations along the Trent Valley exert a corrective to the picturesque. The Derwent below the town centre was flanked by polluting industry - now by visually polluting urban regeneration.

The distinctive and discerning Iron Gate

That Derby has a long history is evident in the streets leading up from the Market Place to All Saints, now the Cathedral, with its tall, square early C16th tower. The rest was rebuilt in the C18th in the style of St Martin-in-the-Fields and has wonderful ironwork. The town figured large in the early industrial revolution with the likes of Hargreaves, Strutt and Lombe, who set up a water-powered silk mill in 1717 just north of All Saints, now an industrial museum. In 1780 the Darley Abbey mill was built a mile upstream and both are part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site. The early industrial revolution is wonderfully captured by local artist Joseph Wright’s paintings of fire and light on show in the Art Gallery.

Midland Junction

The Midland Railway Wyvern 

But it was the Midland Railway that made Derby. This was formed in 1844 as an amalgamation of three early railway companies whose junction was at Derby. The station was (and is) some way outside the town centre and this accurately reflects the relationship. Derby was a junction not primarily a destination. The Midland had its headquarters and works here and it was the centre of operations – so to railwaymen Derby was always far more important than the other much bigger cities that the Midland serves, and so it remains today.

British industry today (sigh)

Derby’s development post the Midland Railway was steady but its great expansion was in the first half of the C20th. Rolls Royce set up here in 1907 but the original factory is now demolished and the grand inter war Marble Hall empty. The RR Engineering Centre of 1964 is a fine example of the Modern Movement. Although cars are no longer manufactured in Derby, jet engine production is cutting edge technology and big business. Nationalisation enhanced Derby’s railway role with the establishment of the BR Technical Research Centre. However this world leading expertise was pissed away in the mad privatisation of the railways. The Thameslink order fiasco now threatens the survival of Bombardier, Britain’s last train manufacturer based in Derby. You could not make this up. Nevertheless Derby’s manufacturing remains relatively strong, at least compared to the rest of Britain, helped by the building of a massive Toyota plant on a disused aerodrome outside the city.

Derby, a pleasant and successful town, was made a city in 1977. This encouraged rivalry with that other larger and more imperial part of Brian Clough City – rivalry between cities being the more natural state of affairs than partnership. Subsequent striving to ‘punch its weight’, to go up in the city league tables has led Derby over the last 20 years to promote regeneration schemes which are mostly an unmitigated disaster.

Nothing to be proud of

Units of finance only - bollocks to the public realm

The first big project was Pride Park, Derby’s City Challenge. Note this as Heseltine thinks City Challenge was his most successful initiative and we may well expect Tory history to repeat itself soon. So we begin our tour at the statue to Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor outside County’s Pride Park stadium. Of course the scene of their triumphs was the Baseball Ground now redeveloped for housing, not this new identikit stadium. At least there is a Greggs which is open on non match days – the only sign of life.

A Francis Maude consumable building

The area was an industrial wasteland east of Derby Station, cut off by the river and railway lines. The big regeneration idea was to decontaminate the site and whack in two big balls new roads. That’s it. There is no discernable plan, no pride – not of a civic nature anyway, no park, no relationship to the Derwent, zero concession to urban design, no pretence of place making. The only evidence of any design intent is the ubiquitous fussy street lamps which are no doubt meant to give the area a ‘special identity’. Pride Park is crap squared, not even aspiring to the standards of a business park. It has been built out as a series of sheds, or sometimes if you were being kind pavilions, all surrounded with car parking, overgrown landscaping and security fencing. What is completely amazing is that in this place which only exists to give primacy to cars it is virtually impossible to park. Everything is privatised, all the car parks barriered off, the streets all yellow lines to facilitate fast flowing traffic. Pride Park epitomises a society where all transactions are atomised and depend on separate car journeys.

Railway enterprise today

There are some big employers here including East Midlands Trains, successors to the MR, and Egg, the internet bank located in a huge grey battery shed, although its future is uncertain. The grandest building belongs to Rolls Royce but perversely is tucked away on a cul-de-sac. Solicitors and other professionals have decamped here from the city centre in dreary and respectable brick pavilions with steeply pitched roofs. These are often strangely juxtapositioned with uses like car repair workshops, but hey, who cares as long as there is plenty of parking. The many flashy car dealerships actually have the more interesting buildings at least compared to the fitness clubs, budget hotels and the usual array of mouth watering chain eateries – Frankie and Benny’s, Harvester et al, all cocooned in their own private spaces.

Bending over backwards for short term capitalism

That this non-place should be the outcome not just of commercial ignorance and greed but deliberate public policy, planning, regeneration and huge public subsidy no longer shocks or surprises. For Heseltine to claim this as success shows him to be a true Bourbon.

Railway Heritage

Renewed identity but heavy security

There is however one big success story – the restoration of Derby Roundhouse adjacent to Derby Station but this had nothing to do with City Challenge. This 16 sided engine shed engineered by Robert Stephenson in 1839 had been left to rot but together with an original engine shop, carriage shop, offices and impressive clock tower it has been restored for Derby College by a team lead by Maber Architects. There are some flashy new build additions with lots of orange (reference to Joseph Wright?) which probably strike the right note for the new college use. A very impressive achievement and real regeneration, but it is a pity that paranoia means the complex is all behind security fencing with a turnstile entrance like a youth offenders’ institution.

Aestheticism and laudanum  

Derby Station was bombed in the war and the remnants of the celebrated original 1839 Trijunct Station were recently destroyed for new buildings which look like a bog standard motorway service station – probably intentionally. Even more recently the futuristic post war concrete platform canopies were replaced. You can’t cross the station to the Roundhouse complex because of the ticket barriers – another outrageous privatisation of space which Sheffield has successfully stood up to.

The 1840s speculative railway boom - planned here

The extraordinary Roundhouse complex is matched on the west side of the station by the wonderfully severe late Georgian Midland Hotel, like the original station designed by Francis Thompson, and the delightful planned town of terraces for railway workers. These are beautifully proportioned in brownish red brick, some with paired Tuscan Doric doorcases and little gardens. They were restored in the 70s, a major conservation triumph. In between is the swaggering red brick and terracotta Midland Institute of 1894 by Trubshaw, the Midland’s architect.

Welcome to Westfield Derby

Words fail me 

This is a wonderful ensemble and a great introduction to Derby (the present station excepted). However the good impression quickly evaporates. You are no longer allowed to walk to the city centre down Station Approach as this has been turned into Pride Parkway which also seals off the Bass Park next to the Derwent. Pedestrians are directed through a wasteland of marginal uses and surface car parks – not a great approach as Derby Cityscape (the Urban Regeneration Company set up by Prescott) quickly pointed out. A new entrance to the city centre was planned here and this is clearly the right place for new offices and hotels, but the plans came to nothing –Pride Park had already nicked the market with no nonsense about masterplans, urban design or restricted car parking.

A reluctant street frontage by the global corporation

Across the ring road looms the truly appalling Westfield shopping centre. Derby, concerned about its low retail ranking, actually courted this monster – as explicit a statement of corporate contempt for the urban environment as you are likely to find. The main elevation faces the ring road and makes absolutely no concessions to scale, composition, design or civic dignity. The ring road itself makes no concessions either - you reach the shopping centre via a newly constructed pedestrian subway. Given that most cities including Nottingham and Leicester were already taking out their pedestrian subways this was a seriously retro move. There are 3,600 parking spaces - I think you would guess that from their horrible dominance. Piled on top of the retail box and cages of car parking is another great box for a multiplex. It is light grey so you won’t notice it on the skyline, I don’t think. You can see it from just about every vantage point in the city.

Westfield propaganda masking the homogeneity 

Westfield does actually do a very short stretch of real street frontage to London Road - the blandness of its random brick, stone and glass elevations diluted by other interesting buildings. However ‘The Spot’, a small public space with an art deco clock tower - something very specifically Derby - is hideously overwhelmed by Westfield crap. Internally the new malls are quite clean lined and light, but are poorly connected to the rest of the city centre, which is reached through the narrow and claustrophobic arcades of the 1970s Eagle Centre. The Eagle Market however, although lacking its original octagonal stalls, is light and airy.

The new monster shopping centre has massively unbalanced the city centre dynamics leaving swathes of empty shops but Westfield has been successful in promoting Derby in the retail rankings – now benchmarked with Bath, Cheltenham, Chester, and York, allegedly.


Get out of the way: people who drive cars are more important

Derby’s inner ring road begun in the 60s was as destructive to an historic town as you would expect but it is also exceptionally disorientating with its loops and swirls and the dislocation of the historic street pattern. Only the northern and eastern legs were built before ring roads became unfashionable, undesirable and unaffordable. Derby, retro-city, however did not give up and pursued completion in the new world of Prescott’s ‘New Deal for Transport’. The old plans were dusted off and rebranded ‘Connecting Derby’, all dressed up with pieties about pedestrians, cyclists, bus priorities and regeneration. And to show how shallow the DfT’s commitment to sustainable transport really was they got the money. The ring road has recently been completed from Westfield’s car parks towards Friar Gate across the grain of the streets and topography of the town, leaving a swathe of destruction and dereliction in its wake. Hausmann had a plan for the rebuilding of Paris. Derby hasn’t a clue.

Another planet

Friar Gate - haunted by the Lunar Society

Friar Gate is a beautiful street lined with some fine C17th and mostly mid C18th houses but is rather dominated by traffic. It is punctuated by a wonderfully picturesque railway bridge with a fanciful cast iron balustrade by the Derby firm, Handyside, currently hidden by anti-pigeon netting and needing refurbishment. There are restaurants, hotels and bars – a civilised, social place. Friar  Gate restores your faith in the pleasure of good building design, proportion, quality of materials and craftsmanship, townscape, society – and Derby. The continuation of Friar Gate towards the centre is Wardwick, also a fine street containing many historic buildings and the Gothic style Museum of 1876. The Art Gallery is in the parallel Strand – a very handsome Victorian improvement street with stone neo classical curving terraces.

Pennine curves - a premonition of Buxton & Newcastle

Victoria Street is also C19th (the name is a bit of a give away). It contains the very fine and very grand former Royal Hotel, the central section stucco, commissioned in 1839, as well as other Victorian commercial buildings. There is also C20th retail chain architecture. The large former department store, restrained 50s with subtle curves, is now Silly Sid’s discount store since Debenhams relocated to an extremity of the Westfield centre. St Peters Street leads south to ‘The Spot’. St Peter’s is the only surviving medieval church. Opposite this the brilliant faux Elizabethan former Boots store of 1912 is empty. The parallel Exchange Street includes a number of excellent, very literate, early C20th buildings including the 30s Co-op Department Store. Cornmarket with its satisfying mix of mostly C19th architecture and proportion leads north to the Market Place.

Civic conflicts

Assembly Rooms: Tectonic integrity

Ian Nairn loved the Market Place which he saw as the centre of the town but unfortunately it no longer is. The Guildhall, remodelled in 1842, sits on the south side, the 1864 Market Hall behind with its splendid tunnel vault roof, cast iron columns and gallery. Opposite is the L shaped Assembly Rooms of 1971 by Casson. Pevsner thought this ‘bland in colour and rather featureless… it fails to give the Market Place any visual climax’. Yes, but it has some tectonic integrity. Stirling’s entry for the design competition envisaged a Campo-like enclosure of the east end of the Market Place. He was definitely on the right lines. The problem is that the space bleeds out towards the Council House and the wide open spaces of Morledge and the visual chaos that is Westfield.

A good thing but bleeding away into the distance

The new Quad film theatre and gallery to the south west of the Guildhall unfortunately does not provide sufficient enclosure. Designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley it is an admirable building in many ways, carefully sculpted and referenced, although I don’t quite see the promised ‘transparency of silk, lace and ceramics’. But it is an ‘iconic’ object in its own right rather than an effective part of the townscape – that would have required a different brief. The difficulty is the relationship with the Council House, obviously a key building of the city which needs its own setting. It was designed in 1938 by Aslin, the Borough Architect, in C18th style which Pevsner thought ‘a poor design’ but actually it looks like a real town hall and is well liked. It was part of a larger civic design including the Courts, now derelict (how typical), the Exeter Bridge and  new roads which are just too wide. These now give a depressing vista of Westfield and other recent follies.

It’s the location, stupid

The joyful and historic Sadler Gate

Iron Gate leads from the Market Place to the ‘Cathedral Quarter’ around Sadler Gate, St Mary’s Gate and Queen Street. These are delightful streets full of good buildings with interesting shops and businesses. The finest building is the County Hall of 1660, similar in details to Bolsover and Nottingham Castle. Nearby on St Mary’s Gate is the excellent Cathedral Quarter Hotel, converted from grand Victorian offices and showing that Derby can indeed do quality. Sadly this does not apply to Jury’s Inn. Its 12 blank stories complete with a little fin loom over the Cathedral – the most conspicuous but not actually the worst of the predictably dreadful crop of new hotels.

Unloved eighteenth century bridge seeks civil society

Opening up the neglected riverside was a priority for Derby Cityscape and rightly so. The elegant C18th St Mary’s Bridge with its rare surviving C14th bridge chapel is overshadowed by the bastard inner ring road. On negotiating the subway you will find ‘Derby Riverside’ next to the Derwent and opposite the Silk Mill. It has the dreariest, most joyless blocks of red brick apartments you can imagine, with a narrow riverside walk dominated by grilles to basement car parking. A new pedestrian mast bridge links this to a  new park behind the cathedral, which could actually do with a bit more landscaping. South of this boarded up sites await ‘exciting new mixed use waterside developments’. Beyond Exeter Bridge the pleasant Riverside Gardens are flanked by the Council House (temporarily boarded off for renovation) and the back of leaden Crown Courts, yet another triumph of the PSA.


Zaha Hadidn't

Next we come to ‘Riverlights’, an exciting mixed use regeneration scheme which is breathtakingly bad. It sports a concertina roof which looks as though the designer had flicked through a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room and noticed a Zaha Hadid. There is masses of grey or cream shiny cladding, the elevations are completely featureless and vacant looking except for a desperately matey glass stairwell leading to hotels on the upper floors. As well as hotels it contains a casino, lots of boarded up restaurant/bars and a new bus station replacing Aslin’s much loved art deco bus station – something specifically ‘Derby’ destroyed for something utterly anonymous and banal. Riverside Gardens are tenuously connected under the ring road to Bass Park and this could have been extended along the Derwent to link to the Station and Pride Park except that Pride Parkway was blasted through instead.

Where did we go wrong?

Speculative (adjective) based on conjecture with high risk of loss

How come so much regeneration ends up like this - so trite, so cynical, inept, anonymous and crap? Of course there are many intractable reasons but the whole concept of regeneration is part of the problem. Since Mrs Thatcher big business has been so totally dominant and local authorities systematically disempowered – a process that is accelerating today with the cuts and Localism. Regeneration is a sort of desperate reaction – cities begging for central government favours, grasping at footloose investment to try and secure jobs and repair their ravaged economies. And like gladiators they are pitted against each other in competitive government funding schemes. Regeneration projects are measured on short term economic outputs, not design, identity or community interests. Crucially they must be acceptable to the demands of private sector corporations and the utterly dominant financial institutions. There are parallels with the power of News International over governments and civil society.

Bring back municipal socialism

The British diseases of chronic short-termism and iron central control of both private and public finance mean that high quality, imaginative regeneration has very little chance of success. The regeneration industry, chasing fickle public funding and hard nosed commercial investment which can always go elsewhere and needing to produce quick results to justify its existence, has come to believe any development is good and big shiny things even better. And in the competition between cities they end up increasingly the same. So Nottingham’s response to Westfield Derby is a bigger Westfield Nottingham and so on.

Contrast and surprise - Derby Guildhall

Heseltine is completely wrong to extol competition between cities for limited central government funding as the best way to promote regeneration – the opposite is true as Pride Park conclusively demonstrates. Cities need to be in charge of their own destinies, to have financial independence and to work on longer timescales. Prescott, who genuinely bought into the urban renaissance, regionalism and sustainable transport agenda got it largely right but did not have enough time, resources or political support to deliver.

Nostalgic for those meretricious Victorians

If we can survive the coming dark months of Pickles and his philistine insouciance there may yet be opportunity for better regeneration in Derby. The city has co-operated with Nottingham to prevent the stealthy emergence of another north Bristol (sorry, South Gloucestershire) type edge city sprawl around motorway junctions, the airport and new Parkway station – at least for the time being. This may allow city centre developments to become more viable. The Derby Cityscape masterplan identifies a number of further regeneration sites including the old Royal Infirmary on London Road. This is a street of real townscape quality – the original Victorian hospital buildings in a Jacobean style with ogee capped towers, and a striking modernist block of 1970. The as yet unrealised redevelopment promises ‘a new gateway to the city marked by an iconic, landmark building’. Oh my God not again! This is actually a great opportunity for a development to take inspiration from the special character of the context and integrate itself into a wider, more complex urban environment without screaming ‘look at me’. We can only hope. There are some signs of a more humane approach to development, like the Ash Sukula proposal on Sadler Gate.

Motifs and materials from the Peaks 

Derby is a very distinctive city despite the recent dross. It must remain so.

N.B. Lunch was served at the Brewery Tap, but Chris had a better half (a White Feather) at the Brunswick Inn.


Anonymous said...

Interesting point: Nottingham rioted, Derby didn't.

Jones the planner said...

If there is a casual connection between Pride Park, Westfield and Riverlights and satisfaction with the inequalities of society then that must be about the most depressing conclusion ever.

Chris Matthews said...

Perhaps more accurate to say Nottingham faired far worse than Derby during the riots, but looking at the local news is appears Derby was not without similar events, see:



Jon said...

An interesting point to note from this article, Derby's ring road was not completed to the original plans. Nowhere near. What was built originally is a kind of monument to the 60s optimism, that the car was the future. The plan for the rest would have been similar. Instead what was built since the late 2000s was an awful compromise- bad for vehicles and bad for pedestrians.

Mary said...

I have stumbled across your blog after reading comments on a Jonathon Meades article on the Lea Valley in the Guardian. One commenter kindly provided a link to this blog. Thanks a million to him/her for the link and to you for a comprehensive account of the regeneration disaster that has been inflicted upon Derby. I first came up to live here 25 years ago, driven out of London by the price of a house. Ramshackle and down at heel, Derby nevertheless had a human-scale city centre then, with a plethora of architectural treasures to delight as you walked from St Helen's House (have you seen what they're doing to that now?)to the Spot. Westfield has killed it all off: the high street is dying, the independent shops have called it a day, To Let signs litter the landscape. Derby's curious distinction is that it is now a city which you have to leave if you want to do any shopping that is not in a corporate mall. Grim, grim, grim!

Chris Matthews said...

Cheers Mary,
Very sad to hear that. Since posting this blog I've been to see me grandma who lives in Kimberley, Notts. For years she used to prefer shopping at Derby to Nottingham - she thought the streets were quieter and more conducive for the elderly. She also enjoyed having a cup of tea in the old Debenhams and then getting the bus back home.

But like you she says Westfield has ruined it and has since give up on the place. She goes with my mum to Nottingham now.

Anonymous said...

RE Pride Park car oriented / parking. One of the ironies of Pride Park is that, in most of the available units, the number of parking spots per office block is far less than the number of people who work there. I am sure this partially contributes to the large number of "To Let" signs in the area - no point a company having their employess face parking tickets for parking near work or being late due to the erratic public transport.

Unknown said...

Excellent quality articles are here. This is good site with useful info.

Anonymous said...

A friend passed this link on to me after 3 of us had been discussing Derby city centre (November 2022), and whether it would ever recover its former "footfall". Of fiends and acquaintances now in their late 60s and early 70s, most say they hardly ever go into "town" (yes, we still call it that) as there is little to attract us. We currently have no large central venue for concerts, comedy, gigs etc, and Derby must have fallen off the touring map of the country by now.
This article could well do with updating, now we are looking at the Becketwell development, and the Debenhams featured in the photos is no more.