The producers of the ‘21st Century Agora’ white paper warmly welcome the Mary Portas review of the high street as a real opportunity to inject new thinking into our struggling town centres and create places where people can thrive and flourish.
Our input into the review was described by Mary Portas as ‘inspirational and invaluable’ and we are particularly pleased that she has adopted a people-centred, community-based approach to her recommendations.
Earlier this summer our organisations jointly called for a ‘21st century agora’ – a new approach to the high street. We’re pleased that Mary Portas has taken on board much of our thinking in her report.
The review sets out 28 different recommendations for reviving town centres. Some are very specific – such as creating a separate planning regime for betting shops – and some very wide-ranging.
In particular, we welcome the final recommendation, which is to ‘support imaginative community use of empty properties through Community Right to Buy, meanwhile use and a new “community right to try”’. This could create new forms of activity and buzz on our high streets.
The first recommendation, to create a ‘town team’ to develop and implement a vision for each high street, grasps the need to bring people together to create a shared direction and sense of the future. We think this needs to be a true community planning process, with buy-in at senior executive level within public services and the private sector.
The idea of a ‘national market day’ could be an inspired way to bring together and showcase local producers, artists and makers. We would encourage towns to do this more than once a year, using the national event as a celebration of diversity and creativity. Our town centres should be celebrations of the creative spirit of our population and shop windows for new business ideas, technologies, social innovation and community enterprise in its broadest sense.
The ‘presumption in favour of town centre development’ could help to offset the damage done over the last quarter-century by out of town malls and retail parks. It’s helpful, too, that Ms Portas argues that developers should contribute financially to enable communities to have a say in the planning process.
More important, though, is for planners to encourage and incentivise approaches to development that create local ownership, boost social capital and support local businesses that keep money circulating within the local economy.
The recommendations that landlords should become investors in town centres and than banks owning empty property should fill or sell are significant and welcome. Too often property owners have no interest in the wellbeing of the places where their assets are situated. They need to be part of the solution rather than exacerbating the problem.
The idea of an ‘empty shop management order’ could be a useful addition to local authorities’ armoury in managing town centres, and we agree this should be piloted. We hope it would act as an incentive for property owners to use their assets creatively or pass them to people who can.
What’s most important, though, is not just the specific recommendations. It is to reimagine our high streets, bringing together a different set of attitudes and approaches. As Mary Portas says in her introduction, ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’.
Today we set out ten steps to a happier high street that ‘town teams’, local authorities, retailers and landlords should take on board and should influence the neighbourhood planning process.
- The high street should be the hub of the community. That means it needs to be planned by the community.
- Civic, social and cultural activities, not big stores, are the anchors of our town centres. Encourage them.
- Real localism starts when people have space to test their ideas. Use empty shops and public areas to create that space.
- Local loyalty is about solidarity between people, not brands. Build markets around relationships and mutual benefit.
- Local food and products are not middle class fripperies. They help people build independent livelihoods and create worthwhile work, and create alternative food sources and supply chains.
- Every place is unique. That uniqueness is strengthened when ownership is local and money stays in the local economy.
- Places don’t look after themselves. They need to be animated, which means giving people opportunities to do what inspires them. Town teams should be animators, not office holders.
- Climate change, technology, demographics and austerity will change the way nearly all of us live. We need to use our high streets to build interdependence and resilience.
- Expecting multinational retailers to solve the problems of town centres is like expecting drug dealers to run rehab clinics. We should dare to be different and be ready to invest in local ideas.
- There is no going back to the high street of the past. We can use the ideas of the ‘21st century agora’ to start imagining the future.
We intend to build on our work over the next few months as the prime minister considers the Portas report, and create a wider network of people who are taking action to improve their town centres. In particular we’ll seek to find new ways to share learning and experiences between different localities, with a possible event to bring high street pioneers together in the new year.
More details will be posted on reviveourcentres.ning.com
1 The full text of our submission to the Portas review is at: http://bit.ly/opLqiD
2 The nine participating organisations are;
Urban Pollinators Ltd http://urbanpollinators.co.uk/ (coordinator)
Action for Market Towns http://towns.org.uk/
Empty Shops Network http://emptyshopsnetwork.com
Incredible Edible Todmorden http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/home
Meanwhile Space CIC http://www.meanwhilespace.com/
Research 00:/ [zero zero] http://www.architecture00.net/
Res Publica http://www.respublica.org.uk/
Wigan Plus http://wiganplus.com/
3 For more information contact Julian Dobson