The world's first pop-up shopping mall

Is clothes browsing inside refurbished shipping containers in east London as hip (and non-corporate)

It's midday, and I am walking along Shoreditch High Street headed towards the northern end of Brick Lane. I turn into Bethnal Green Road. There is a lot of activity going on -- lots of young people of various nationalities purposefully moving stuff around while others stand back and survey the results of their endeavours. I wonder what's happening as this is normally a dead area -- except on evenings at weekends, when the affluent young people of London and their counterparts from overseas come out to play and move between the various bars, clubs and restaurants in Greater Shoreditch.

The reason soon becomes clear. There is a line of grey recycled shipping containers, adjacent to the pavement area, which have been turned into retail outlets. The brand names, all in the same style of lettering, are flagged up above the entrances: Calvin Klein, Farah Vintage, Levi's, Original Penguin, Marimekko and Puma. There is even an Amnesty International shop selling "limited edition" jewellery, stationery and prints for the festive season.

This, as I later find out, is Boxpark, described in the PR as "the world's first pop up mall" in the "coolest part of the coolest city in the coolest country in the world", which opens today.

It certainly seems a world away from London's other recent, purpose-built shopping centres like Westfield London in Shepherd's Bush and Westfield Stratford City, as well as older models like Brent Cross; enclaves detached from the surrounding area with shops like John Lewis, Debenhams, WH Smith and Mothercare offering customers of all ages a very safe and mainstream retail experience to the sounds of George Benson, and the like.

But how different is Boxpark? My first reaction -- from the sheer number of well-known brands targeting young people and the clever symmetry of the double-storey assembly -- was that this is not the usual activity of small, independent retailers that have colonised parts of Brick Lane and the Old Truman Brewery site in the last six or seven years.

Such places have transformed the western edge of Tower Hamlets -- the second poorest borough in London and third poorest in the country -- into a zone of "ultimate cool" for the middle classes.

The space where Boxpark now sits was earmarked for some serious retail and leisure development, but the global economic crisis has put paid to that, at least for the time being.

It turns out that one of those backing Boxpark is Charles Dunstone, the former public schoolboy who turned £6,000 worth of savings into a fortune through the Carphone Warehouse. Always on the lookout for new investment opportunities, he and his partners (although they don't always get it right; witness the recent closure of the Best Buy electrical megastores) might well have found a crock of gold at the end of Shoreditch's rainbow: a huge influx of visitors will visit east London for the Olympics next year and, it is hoped, thereafter.

Irrespective of the PR behind Boxpark, it has to be pointed out that the concept is not totally new.

Refurbished shipping containers have been used in several parts of the world -for example, the Puma City in Chicago and the Illy Café in New York -- and there are even plans to create a space for a church in the US. Moreover, Dunstone and his partner, Roger Wade, chief executive of Brighton-based Consultancy Brands Incorporated, are now looking further afield for another site in London to use the containers to develop a leisure complex.

So it looks like this is just the beginning of a new wave of innovative retailing, which will make the traditional high street shopping experience for many very old fashioned indeed. Perhaps the government's retail guru Mary Portas, whose review of the future of the UK high street is due for release any day now, should take note.

What does all this mean for London in general and greater Shoreditch in particular? Undoubtedly, Boxpark's arrival is yet the latest sign that the centre of cultural and economic gravity in the capital is moving inexorably eastwards. My guess is that the pressure will continue to build up and it is only a matter of time before permission is granted to build an airport in the Thames estuary.

As for E1, Boxpark can stay for five years. Then, assuming the UK economy has returned to some sort of growth, it will vanish; preserved only in memories and digital photographs. However, unless the urban planners and members of Tower Hamlets Council put some very creative hats on, the probability is that something more mainstream will take its place.

The coolest part of the world won't be quite so cool anymore. But that's progress for you.

Dr Sean Carey is visiting lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide