Original article from Kent Live
Tunbridge Wells has long been one of the most desirable places to live in the UK, with its royal title, easy transport links to London and idyllic surrounding countryside.
So much so that the Financial Times named it as the town the wealthy elite of London, Hong Kong and the US are most desperate to move to.
It was also once well-known for its shopping and dining experience, with people coming from across the county to spend the day at Royal Victoria Place shopping centre (RVP).
But these days RVP, which was opened by Princess Diana in 1992, is a far cry from the thriving centre of business celebrated by the People’s Princess almost 30 years ago.
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As a child I considered a trip to RVP as an exciting day out.
I spent much of my teenage years clothes shopping and hanging out in the food court with friends, so it’s heartbreaking to see more and more businesses disappearing each time I visit.
The recent lockdowns have seen restaurants in the food court disappear at an alarming rate.
I never thought I’d see the day where I’d mourn the loss of McDonald's but seeing the chain boarded up felt like the end of an era, both my siblings had worked there as teenagers.
In fact the only eatery still open in the once bustling food-court is Subway.
The hospitality and retail industry have been hit hard by the pandemic which has no doubt contributed to the emptiness of RVP but the centre was deteriorating long before coronavirus made an appearance.
It was no surprise to see BHS and Topshop go after both the Phillip Green owned chains famously went into administration.
But that didn't make it any less disappointing that neither unit has been replaced with another business.
Clothing options are now very limited with New Look, Ann Summers and Topshop all sat empty.
And in terms of footfall it was all but a ghost-town.
Despite the £11m revamp in 2019 which saw the floor replaced throughout the centre, the installation of new seating areas and bespoke roof lights, the opening of a Central Market food area, and the refurbishment of the toilets, a significant number of units still remain empty.
The previous owners of RVP, Hermes, were granted planning permission for a £70m upgrade which boasted new shops, restaurants and a cinema, but this was scrapped when the building was sold to British Land for £96m in 2018.
Property company British Land, who own RVP but not some of the outside premises, described the plans as 10 years out of date.
There are various signs around RVP promising better public spaces and asking people to be patient as they upgrade the shopping experience but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of this happening any time soon.
However it was promising to see attempts have been made to brighten the area – empty shops have been filled with artwork and the hoardings outside BHS were decorated with a mural commissioned by Royal Tunbridge Wells Together (RTWT).
And in a strange turn of events The Pantiles, which hosts smaller businesses, appears to be thriving.
People have shown a great deal more support towards local businesses, who struggled the most during the lockdowns, and they seem to have come out the other side stronger than ever.