Trapped in Neverland: the Strange Case of Food in Coventry City Centre

Britain is an ageing society – although living in Coventry, you’d struggle to believe it. The city is a young one. At an estimated 33.1 years (2015 figure), the average age here is almost seven years below that of England as a whole.

One of the reasons for this relatively youthful profile is the phenomenal growth of the university. The city centre population is already heavily student-dominated; and with more accommodation towers climbing skywards all the time, it’s a trend that seems set to become ever more pronounced.

In many ways, it’s a positive development. Young people bring energy, vibrancy and creativity, and if they stay on in Cov after graduating, their skills will boost the local economy and fuel economic growth. In terms of the city’s food offering however, their presence is, perhaps, proving to be a more mixed blessing.

Why? Well, expansion of student numbers might be less problematic if, before these new trends began to gather pace, the city centre already had an established independent food sector robust enough to provide alternatives and balance. But it didn’t. And now a combination of exploding numbers of hungry 18-24 year-olds and a city centre that is, in food terms, practically virgin territory, has created a feeding (in every sense) bonanza. Unfortunately, in the rush to exploit this booming (but comparatively unsophisticated) student market, much of what’s on offer is little better than low-quality garbage; and even at its best, is too-often bland, generic and predictable.

Take the planned new developments at Cathedral Lanes. Originally conceived as a shopping centre, Cathedral Lanes has, since 2015, been busily re-inventing itself as a ‘restaurant quarter’, and now boasts a trio of major-league national chains: Cosy Club, Las Iguanas and Wagamama. But they take up only a part of it. The rest is occupied by the heroically obstinate Wilko’s – which has stubbornly refused to be ousted from its prime location – or is disused (unless you count the pop-up charity shop currently gracing the unit that was formerly Blacks).

According to plans submitted by the site’s owners however, transformation is on the way. A further seven restaurants (plus gym – you might need it) will be added to Cathedral Lanes’ existing portfolio, bringing the total to ten. Seven new restaurants for Cov city centre?! I should be jumping for joy, shouldn’t I?

Yes and no. I’m no fan of Cathedral Lanes’ clunky architecture, but if we grudgingly accept that it’s here to stay and we’re lumbered with it for the foreseeable, there are definite positives to take away from this. Foremost amongst them is the plan to reanimate the conservatory and terrace area round the back, whose current state of semi-dereliction is, considering it overlooks one of the most genuinely picturesque corners in the entire city centre, little short of criminal. But the main reason my feet are staying firmly on the ground, is that – while nothing is known for certain as yet – the signs are that most if not all of these new restaurants will be chains.

Because look at the evidence. You’ve got a past history of filling the place with chains; you’ve got big name restaurants gagging for the a piece of the action and equipped with the financial resources and brand recognition to get up and running quickly; you’ve got the local paper practically wetting itself with happiness at the prospect of more chains; and you’ve got the City Council Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration tantalising us – like an indulgent daddy in the run-up to Christmas – with the prospect of ‘welcoming more well-known names’.

Well I certainly won’t be welcoming them. For someone well into middle age, one the most disorientating aspects of Cov city centre is that, at least as far as food is concerned, it won’t let me be an adult. The relentless focus on the cheap and the formulaic traps all of us, irrespective of our chronological age, in a Neverland of unwanted, inappropriate pre-adulthood that is both patronising and deeply insulting. The Cov Telegraph’s and City Council’s mildly desperate-sounding happy-clappy-aren’t-you-lucky pretence that chains are great – no, really, they are! – simply amplifies this message, and fools no one.

So OK, I’m a middle-aged woman; I’m used to being ignored. But while planners and developers can shrug their shoulders and say that Disgruntled of South Cov will just have to suck it up or shove off to Leamington if she’s that bothered, I doubt they’d take the same attitude towards visitors – many of whom will be older and will find cheap, student-orientated restaurants actively off-putting.

And that, my friends, sums up the challenge facing our city centre: how to create a food economy broad enough to appeal to a much-needed cross-section of diners, when local demographics are irresistibly urging the market to chase the student dollar and nothing else?

I’m not anti-university or anti-student – I would, arguably, be incapable of penning this finely-honed, tightly-argued prose if I had not once been a student myself. I see the current situation as a function of the Law of Unintended Consequences rather than the result anything more sinister. After my State of the Nation post, some commentators told me the city’s restaurant scene was still in its infancy and all I needed to do was sit tight and wait for it to ‘mature’. I just hope they’re right. But slavering over an enormous, inexhaustible supply of under-25s, the market has little incentive to look further afield or, in other words, ‘mature’. Meanwhile, those of us who already are ‘mature’ find ourselves ever more alienated.

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