The London Plan is the Mayor's top-level planning document for the Greater London area, a spatial strategy to guide development for the next 20 years, and regularly updated. Within the document is an officialhierarchical list of 200 'town centres' outside the central zone, each classified according to role and function, to aid future decisions on what ought to be built where. Here's a map showing how erratically London's town centres are scattered.
I've been out to visit an example of each tier, from International Centre downwards, with a field study focus on the London borough of Hounslow.
1) INTERNATIONAL CENTRES are London’s globally renowned retail destinations with a wide range of high-order comparison and specialist shopping with excellent levels of public transport accessibility. Total number: 2 Specifically: West End, Knightsbridge n.b. It may be that Stratford and Shepherd's Bush join this list by 2036
Case study: Knightsbridge
They've heard of Knightsbridge overseas, and the weak pound entices even more to visit. A small cluster of high-end stores froths and bubbles to the south of Hyde Park, pivoted around Harvey Nicks at the top of Sloane Street. The big draw is obviously Harrods, once part of House of Fraser and now owned by sheikhs, which smothers an entire city block on the Brompton Road. Doormen in peaked caps welcome taxifuls of bounty hunters, beckoning them into an ornate warren of 330 departments selling luxuries with an appropriately elevated pricetag. To walk through its salon de parfum when you're clearly not part of the target audience is to experience an exquisite form of collective snubbery. Shops devoted to individual luxury brands nudge up on roads close by, from Rolex to Lacoste and from Gucci to Dior. Those thronging the pavements are immaculately turned out with sparkling teeth and tans, and only the finest outerwear, whether just flown in or dropping by from their Belgravia townhouse.
2) METROPOLITAN CENTRES typically contain at least 100,000 sq.m of retail, leisure and service floorspace with a significant proportion of high-order comparison goods relative to convenience goods. They have very good accessibility and significant employment, service and leisure functions, and generally serve wide catchments. Total number: 13 Specifically: Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Harrow, Hounslow, Ilford, Kingston, Romford, Shepherds Bush, Stratford, Sutton, Uxbridge, Wood Green n.b. It may be that Brent Cross, Canary Wharf and Woolwich join this list by 2036
Case study: Hounslow
A former staging post on the Bath Road, this market town remains far enough from Westminster to exert its own pull on the surrounding suburbs. It's possible to buy pretty much anything here, either along the pedestrianised High Street or in the shopping mall plonked alongside. The halo of smaller shops on the periphery reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the borough's residents, showcasing exotic fruits and Eastern European imports. But edge in closer to the centre and here nationwide chains predominate, including Mothercare, Moss Bros and one of west London's half dozen Primarks. Hounslow's bustling enough to have chuggers, but not so exclusive that it can't boast two Greggs and a McDonalds. All the biggest names are in the Treaty Centre, where Debenhams retains a traditional department store stacked with Black Friday tickets, the library is being replaced by a Job Centre, and the food court caters for unadventurous diners. Meanwhile a colossal Asda, plus offices, now rises beyond a building site beneath the railway. No out-of-town alternative has yet extinguished Hounslow's hub of retail opportunity.
3) MAJOR CENTRES have a borough-wide catchment, and generally contain over 50,000 sq.m of retail, leisure and service floorspace with a relatively high proportion of comparison goods relative to convenience goods. They may also have significant employment, leisure, service and civic functions. Total number: 34 Specifically: Angel, Barking, Bexleyheath, Brixton, Camden Town, Canary Wharf, Catford, Chiswick, Clapham Junction, Dalston, East Ham, Edgware, Eltham, Enfeld Town, Fulham, Hammersmith, Kensington High Street, Kilburn, King’s Road East, Lewisham, Nags Head, Orpington, Peckham, Putney, Queensway/Westbourne Grove, Richmond, Southall, Streatham, Tooting, Walthamstow, Wandsworth, Wembley, Wimbledon, Woolwich n.b. It may be that Canada Water and Elephant & Castle/Walworth Road join this list by 2036
Case study: Chiswick
Chiswick's high street stretches for a full retail mile, lined by smart shops and numerous refreshment vendors. It serves the more upmarket end of Hounslow, beyond the pull of Hammersmith, its commercial offering inclusive of daytime and evening hours. Drop by for fired tiles, rare books or a futon, search for a bargain in one of the carefully curated charity shops, or delve into Poundland for confirmation that not everything in the neighbourhood is necessarily rosy. The council kindly permits a string of off-street parking spaces between the Hogarth statue and the police station to cater for those who wouldn't come if they couldn't drive. For food grab a table at a bistro-cum-brasserie, or something from the fruity stalls outside Le Pain Quotidien, or there's always bone broth from the organic cafe. At first glance the only supermarkets appear to be a Waitrose and an M&S Food Hall, but a whopping Sainsbury's is hidden out of sight behind the empty shell of Blockbuster Video Express, which will soon be flats.
4) DISTRICT CENTRES are distributed more widely than the Metropolitan and Major centres, providing convenience goods and services for more local communities and accessible by public transport, walking and cycling. Typically they contain 10,000–50,000 sq.m of retail, leisure and service floorspace. Total number:151 n.b. Bromley by Bow, Colliers Wood, Crossharbour, Hackbridge, North Greenwich and Tottenham Hale may join this list by 2036
Case study: Brentford
How the mighty have fallen. The former county town of Middlesex currently boasts nothing more than a minor high street, set against a backdrop of run-down industrial wharves at the mouth of the river Brent. The splendidly classical Magistrates Court has been turned into a cafe/bar/diner at the heart of a scrubbed up market square, surrounded by surely-1970s flats whose ground floor retail units have yet to escape the 20th century. Here are shops selling fibreglass and interior design goodies, but also kebabs and cigarettes, plus a home furnishings stalwart at Goddards Corner. I hunted for a bakery but only found a Greggs, thronged with residents hunting down a cheap pastry-based lunch. The south side of the street includes an original Victorian Nat West bank and the once smart frontage of County Parade, all of which are due to be swept away in a massive waterfront regeneration which is currently at the compulsory purchase stage. "New retail with a mix of leisure, entertainment and cultural uses" is on its way, which is the London Plan in action, and another triumph for anodyne homogeneity.
5) NEIGHBOURHOOD CENTRES typically serve a localised catchment often most accessible by walking and cycling and include local parades and small clusters of shops, mostly for convenience goods and other services. They may include a small supermarket, sub-post office, pharmacy, launderette and other useful local services. Total number: hundreds
Case study: Heston
A medieval village swallowed up by encroaching suburbs, the heart of Heston is still identifiable around the war memorial and St Leonard's Church. Its retail offer is limited, but greater than originally anticipated when the curving shopping parade was opened between the wars. I only recognised two high street names - Ladbrokes and Paddy Power - maybe three if you'll accept Mace. Elsewhere the off licence doubles up as a Polish shop, the bakery specialises in eggless cakes, and the launderette is proud to be "Speed Queen equipped". At Favorite Chicken most of the seated clientele are wearing turbans, and the menu includes a special £1 poultry bap to cater for the after-school rush. Only a black-fronted florist raises the tone, its interior currently overflowing with silver baubles, with a sophisticated style neither of the two hairdressing salons can match. But so long as Hounslow town centre remains just that bit too far away to be convenient, Heston's local offering will always be the first everyday port of call.