In 1930, Roy Richardson was born in a two-up, two-down rented (nine shillings a week) house next to the steelworks in Dudley, West Midlands. Sixty-one years and, by some estimates, £250 million later, Round Oak is named, improbably, Merry Hill. Until Christmas Eve last year, Merry Hill was owned by the Richardsons: all 1.8 million sq. ft of shopping mall and retail warehousing, home to a 10-screen UCI Multiplex cinema, 250 shops including such bluebloods as Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Littlewoods and Boots, not to mention a five-station monorail system imported from Switzerland at the cost of £22 million. No-one will say how much Mountleigh Group plc paid for Merry Hill, but the Richardsons no longer live in the still extant four-roomed house, now Dudley’s answer to the Bethlehem stable.
Merry Hill itself is a temple to the cult of Richardson. First, it is visibly extravagant, and extravagantly visible. It sits on a 300- acre site, surrounded by parking for 10,000 cars. It has its own minibus fleet (still owned by the twins) and its own taxi service. Turning off the road that bisects the site (of which more later), Paul Ledington, Merry Hill’s assistant director of operations, recites these statistics as a litany, pointing out the handsome marble cladding on the buildings’ monumental facade. ‘That marble is marble,’ Ledington beams. ‘The Richardsons bought it in Italy, had it flown to Texas – Texas! – to be cut and then brought to Merry Hill.’ Nothing but the best for the Richardsons. It is like listening to a Liverpudlian talking about the Beatles.
Merry Hill’s beauty is considerably more than skin deep, however.
Walking through its scrupulously policed, be-muzaked halls on a wet afternoon in one of Britain’s most notoriously depressed regions in the middle of the week during a recession are some 3,000 people.
They are not here for the marble; not even for the £30,000 fountain, tinkling expensively next to its own artificial willow tree. These people are carrying plastic bags: they are here to shop. ‘We get 13- 16 million visitors a year,’ says Leslie Marsh, Merry Hill’s public relations person, ‘and we have calculated the average shopper’s spend at £45.50 a head. Empty shops? I think there are three at the moment, but they’re all spoken for. And there’s a waiting list. It’s just incredible: the Richardsons really are the Richard Bransons of the West Midlands.’
It is difficult to say just why Merry Hill should have this power to part the West Midlander from his (not over-abundant) money. David L’Herroux;, manager of Littlewoods’ branches both in Merry Hill and in nearby West Bromwich’s High Street, points out that customers in the former do not simply spend more than those in the latter, but also spend a higher percentage in cash. One secret may be that Merry Hill itself smells, pungently, of the folding stuff. Its marbled halls are surgically clean, its fountains suspiciously devoid of floating lolly-sticks.
Its cafes, modelled on Jules Verne, allow shoppers for whom hedonism had previously been satisfied by a day return to Birmingham New Street, to nibble tagliatelle in a simulated Via Veneto. Merry Hill’s subtext is one of conspicuous consumption and its punters, accordingly, consume conspicuously.
As a motto, it could be carved in stone over the handsome marble portals of Merry Hill. The magic of Merry Hill, says the shopping centre’s Paul Ledington, lies in the fact that ‘it gives the people what they want’, which is a whiff of the Richardsons’ own charmed lives. The relationship between these local-boys-made-good and their public is an odd one. In 1969, for example, the Richardsons closed down a family-owned road haulage firm, largely, it would seem, to put two fingers up at a bolshy Transport Workers’ Union. ‘We are wealthy men,’ averred Roy Richardson. ‘That is why we could afford to close down Oldbury Transport rather than be held to ransom.’ Then, in a breathtaking non sequitur, he added, ‘The people I feel sorry for are the little men,’ those same little men, presumably, whose road haulage jobs had just been lost. The curious thing is that these little men may well have agreed with the Richardsons, who are viewed as a pair of Black Country Robin Hoods, Bentleys, marble and all.
Not everyone agrees, however. That particular little sally earned the Richardsons the title of ‘cockroach capitalists’ from a furious Jack Jones. It is by no means the only, nor even the most unkind thing to have been said of them. Anti-corporatists, Thatcherites avant le lettre, the twins have notoriously little time for planners (a less visible but equally important part of Merry Hill’s success, by the by).
Another Richardsonian bon mot is that ‘planners plan people out of jobs’; much of Merry Hill’s press publicity is given over to the fact that the centre now employs upwards of 3,700 local folk, rather more than had been employed by the pre-existent Round Oak steelworks.
John Mainwaring, of Dudley’s Planning Office, takes a different view of the Richardsons’ achievement. ‘Where, he says, wearily, ‘do you want me to start? First of all, Merry Hill is in the local Enterprise Zone, which means that the first phase of the development, in 1985, had blanket planning permission. When they wanted to open Phase Five the 1.2 million sq.ft shopping mall in 1989, however, they had to come to us because some of the individual units were of more than 25,000 sq.ft. In the end, we had to take a balanced decision. We thought that there were disadvantages, but we also thought that it would be better to have the development in the borough rather than just out of it! The Richardsons had said that if they weren’t allowed to put up the centre at Merry Hill, they would put it up on Wolverhampton Racecourse, or at Fort Dunlop, which would have left us with all the same problems but none of the benefit.’ Were these alternative schemes real? ‘That,’ says Mainwaring tersely, ‘is not for me to say. Phase Five went ahead.
There was more. Having lost Round One, Dudley’s planners, according to Paul Ledington, dug their toes in when the twins sought permission for an underpass beneath the A4506, which divides the initial phase of Merry Hill from the later mall. Momentarily thwarted, the Richardsons, or so local mythography has it, applied for a bridge. It, too, was refused. They then put in an application for an unspecified site transport system: this time, permission was granted. ‘And that,’ chortles Ledington, ‘is how they got the monorail.’ True or not, the Richardsons’ adherents relish this sense of the brothers’ bravado.
Dudley’s planning officers, it has to be said, do not share their enthusiasm. ‘Merry Hill,’ notes John Mainwaring is not, in fact, on one Enterprise Zone, but on two: the join runs right down the middle of the development. The older one’s rates, holidays and tax breaks ran out in July. The newer one’s – on the site of the old steelworks – don’t expire until 1994. A lot of Merry Hill’s tenants don’t seem to have realised this, and many of them seem extremely confused. Marks and Spencer’s site, for example, is in the second zone, but Sainsbury’s is in the first. From now on, they’re going to have two completely different sets of costs, different planning rules applied to them. In some cases, the border between the zones runs down the middle of individual sites. How all of this is going to be rated, no one knows.’
It is thus with a degree of dubiousness that Mainwaring and his team have viewed the Richardsons’ latest application. Having built Europe’s biggest shopping centre, the twins plan on producing the world’s tallest building: a £100 million, 2,000-foot steel monolith, intended to stand on a ridge behind the existing Merry Hill site. The building, with a hotel at its base and a restaurant half way up, will be three times as high as the NatWest Tower, nearly twice as high as the Empire State.
It will be visible from 30 miles away and it will offer views all over the Black Country for those who might, imaginably, want to see them. It has gained a vast amount of publicity for the publicity-shy (ha!) Richardsons and their latest, office-and-leisure development on their remaining Merry Hill site, with profiles and articles throughout the national press. It remains to be seen whether the reality lives up to the image.
Once again, of course, the entire episode is being viewed as a further instalment in the heart-warming (or spine-chilling, depending on your point of view) tale of Richardsons contra mundum. Of the 95% of respondents to a poll on the tower’s desirability in the area’s local newspaper who said that they did not want it, Roy Richardson says, ‘They’re not doers, not entrepreneurs.’
Dudley’s planning office, angry at the rapine perpetrated on local high street shops by the erection of Merry Hill, are determined not to lose this round. First blood has gone to them: a deputation to the Secretary of State won the authority planning powers over any building of more than 300 feet, modifying the Enterprise Zone on which Richardson Developments had been relying. This modification cannot be applied retrospectively. Now, the Richardsons are claiming that they have begun drilling on the site, which they in turn maintain means that construction of some sort is underway. ‘So far, however, we’ve seen no evidence,’ says John Mainwaring. ‘Obviously, the whole thing has been very good publicity for the Richardsons.’ Those of the faithful who admire the twins’ methods don’t care much either way. Paul Ledington clearly relishes the fight, and is in no doubt as to who will win.
‘And if they don’t,’ says Ledington with awe, ‘the Richardsons have said that they’ll buy the Leaning Tower of Pisa and send it back to Merry Hill, brick by brick (sic).’ The Leaning Tower of Dudley: now there’s a name.