The new Westfield mall in West London
Five years ago, during the first real public panic over the spread of so-called teenage "hoodies" and the crime they brought in their wake, Bluewater shopping centre, in Kent, announced that it was introducing a code of conduct, which would ban clothing that obscured the face. For liberal commentators at the time, the "hoodie ban" was a source of both smirking derision and alarm at the supposed erosion of civil liberties. As an answer to spiralling youth crime, it was written off as a petty response from ghastly petit-bourgeois quarters. But within a week of the new rule coming into force, the number of people visiting the centre had shot up by nearly 25 per cent.
Nothing, it seems, works quite like quick decisive action, especially in situations when those opposing you have nothing but snide criticism to offer by way of an alternative. But what it also illustrated was the obvious belief on the part of the public that a massive private enterprise such as Bluewater would be immediately effective in dealing with such a situation, even if this was borne of purely enlightened commercial self-interest. By contrast, they have no such faith in the guardians of the traditional public arena that, as it continues to fragment and fall apart, they are increasingly deserting.
When it opened ten years ago in a former quarry near Greenhithe, Bluewater, with its 330 stores, 13-screen cinema and 40 cafés and restaurants, was regarded as a benchmark in the progress of the humble shopping mall. Retailers visited from all over Europe to see how it should be done. With its ornamental wrought iron and sculptural reliefs, it set a new standard in sophistication for these developments, in the same way that Gateshead's sprawling MetroCentre outside Newcastle had more than a decade before. Now both of these have been overtaken in sheer lavishness, if not size, by the glistening vistas of the Westfield centre in west London. Costing £1.4 billion, it is the largest "urban area" (as opposed to out-of-town) indoor shopping destination in Europe, the equivalent in space to 30 football pitches. Of course, if the current recession turns into a decade-long depression, Westfield - and, indeed, Bluewater and the MetroCentre - could become synonymous with an era that ended in failure, a symbol of something terrible that we would prefer to leave behind, like the Millennium Dome. Already, half a dozen retailers and two restaurants at Westfield have closed, and MetroCentre has its defunct Woolworths and a couple of Pound stores that wouldn't have been there just a few years ago. But as they stand now, they are each in their own way examples of a trend that over the past 30 years has changed the way in which the large sections of the public gather and interact in this country, and on this, there is no going back.
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