Commerce has deserted Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre. The latest in our new economics series looks at how the community is filling the gap

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York Place shopping centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme where the new anchor tenants are a YMCA shop and Cultural Squatters

 ‘York Place is at the eye of a storm that has either already hit your home town or is looming over it.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

For years, all Mike Riddell has seen in his trade is failure and death. But today he’s at a birth – and all his hope rests on it. A new cafe is opening in the shopping centre he manages and they are throwing a party. Having brought along his wife and mum, 53-year-old Riddell goes into “full-on host mode”, chatting up council officials and swapping elaborate handshakes with teenagers. Yes Sir, I Can Boogie blasts out of the stereo, and some obliging soul in a Spider-Man costume complies. Over all the music and chat, you can hear the free ping-pong tables getting a pounding. Yes sir, clip-clop, clip-clop, I can boogie, clip-clop, clip-clop.

Through the big windows, you can see the world Riddell normally faces – and it’s desolate. No babble, no mucking about. Hardly anyone clip-clops past. On this Tuesday lunchtime at York Place, the most tired shopping centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, just outside Stoke, there are few actual shoppers.

After decades building and running shopping centres across the country, Riddell has looked after York Place for two tough years. He let out this same entrance cafe to a can-do pair at the end of 2017. They lasted a few months before giving up, leaving behind the tables, chairs and a stove for whoever else wanted to try their luck. It would be hard for anyone, but especially for Riddell, who is one of life’s enthusiasts. He zooms down conversational detours about his great love, northern soul, and its debt to miners’ culture. And he never wears a poker face. Ask how important this successor cafe is and he admits: “Fucking vital. We need to make this work.”

At rock bottom, eight of York Place’s 35 units stood vacant. Still today, bare shopfronts are as obvious as missing teeth. Next door at the fancier Roebuck Centre, the Early Learning Centre, Argos and Primark have all disappeared. Even the charity shops are vanishing. For centuries, Newcastle, as locals call it, has been a bustling market town. Today the market is retreating and the town’s very identity is under threat.

York Place is at the eye of a storm that has either already hit your home town or is looming over it. Last year 5,855 shops closed in Britain, the most since 2010. If today is in line with the average, by this evening a net total of five shops will have given up the ghost.

To read the rest of this article, please visit: The shopping centre where the currency is hope

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