Runcorn Shopping City, formerly Halton Lea and Runcorn Shopping Centre, is a medium-sized indoor shopping centre in Runcorn, Cheshire, England. It is the main shopping area in Runcorn with over 125,000 visitors per week. It was the largest enclosed shopping centre in Europe at the time of its construction and remains the largest in Cheshire. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972.
Designed by Fred Roche CBE, the Chief Architect and Planning Officer of the New Town, Runcorn Shopping City was built on a greenfield site near Halton Village. Roche is best known for his later, seminal role in the creation of Milton Keynes.
The centre was to be the centrepiece of Runcorn New Town. The New Town’s master planner, Arthur Ling, envisaged that it would become the “natural meeting place for the town’s social and cultural life as well as for shopping, offices and specialised amenities such as theatre, library, central sports hall etc.”
Influenced by the fully enclosed, drive-in shopping malls that had begun to emerge in North America in the 1960s, the Shopping City was to house other amenities such as a cinema, post office, library and pub. It was also close to the law courts, the police station and the hospital. The shopping complex itself was to be linked by pedestrian bridges and footpaths to some of the new, modern estates of the New Town, such as the radical but ill-fated Southgate Estate.
Construction began in 1968 by John Laing Group commissioned by Grosvenor Estate Commercial Developments Limited and the Runcorn Development Corporation. The build cost £10 million and was privately financed by Grosvenor. The centre was completed by 1971 and Runcorn Shopping City was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 5 May 1972.
The building is raised on columns, partly to tackle the valley like topography, but also to allow the segregation of cars, buses and pedestrians. Vehicles arrive at ground level, giving access to the multi-storey car parks on each corner for visitors and to the shop basements for deliveries. Buses arrive on the dedicated raised busways which circle the town in a figure of 8 with the Shopping City at the centre. Pedestrians access the centre at the shopping level by using the four raised walkways, also at each corner of the centre, thus never having to cross a busy road and linking the centre to surrounding developments.
The Shopping City and all of its surrounding ancillary buildings were encased in brilliant white tiles which were chosen to be self-cleansing; their crisp whiteness contrasting with the hill to the north and the trees and dense planting which would come to surround it. On its opening, The Times commented that, ‘Shopping City is possibly the nearest planners have come to the sort of building imagined by science fiction writers. In appearance, it resembles a supersonic mosque, with gleaming white bricks even on the dullest day’. It also noted the ‘clarity of the design of shops, malls and public squares’ and the ‘spacious, beautifully lighted shops’.
The interior was finished to a very high standard, with white terrazzo floor tiles used throughout and Sicilian marble lining the walls, columns and shop fronts. The shops are laid out along malls in an H formation, with the ‘Town Square’ in the centre. There is a second storey around the square intended for restaurants and bars.
At the time of its opening it was the largest fully enclosed shopping centre in Europe. Served by excellent transport links, not just within Runcorn itself (including the town’s innovative busway system), but also with surrounding towns and cities, it quickly established itself as a premier shopping destination. By the early 1980s all the units were fully let and new town residents recall the four multi-storey car parks – 2,200 spaces – as being almost full in the early days.