Beyond the butcher and the baker: local government gets re-imagining

If you thought we were all deserting local shops, think again. Apparently nearly four-fifths of us believe our high streets depend on local butchers and bakers, according to the Local Government Association.

A new poll shows just how deep this care for local retailers lies, especially among older people:

Nearly eight in 10 local people believe that local producers (79 per cent), such as a butcher or baker, are critical to the future success of their high streets. While local shops polled strongly, less than half of local residents (47 per cent) believe that supermarkets had a role to play in the future success of high streets, the Local Government Association/ComRes poll found.

Yet the evidence shows few signs that the trend away from high street shopping is letting up. Do we say one thing to the pollsters and do another when we spend our hard-earned cash?

What the poll shows is not that the decline of the high street is going to be reversed any time soon, but that people care about what goes on in these places and what them to reflect local character and business. For that to happen, we need to be ready to embrace different thinking.

Alongside its poll, the LGA has published a short report, Alternative High Street: rethinking the town centre challenge (pdf). I contributed a brief article reprising some of the ideas in the Twenty-first Century Agora paper, but what’s interesting is that local government is increasingly thinking along similar lines.

It’s worth noting the introductory comments from Cllr Peter Box, chair of the LGA’s economy and transport board:

Retail is not the future, and town centres are adapting. We have to go back to the start, moving beyond retail, and refocusing places as centres of social, community and cultural economies.

He makes five recommendations:

  • make consumer satisfaction a benchmark of high street performance
  • make sure local economic strategies support high streets
  • enable communities to plan their high streets
  • more community control over local transport
  • greater transparency and mechanisms to bring all partners to the table, including absent landlords

These are positive points and some are ideas that prospective town teams or local partnerships can begin to take up regardless of government action.

Meanwhile the Association of Town Centre Management has offered free workshops for towns pitching to become ‘Portas pilots’, starting on 8 March. Organised in association with the Department for Communities and Local Government, they will take place in London, Solihull, Bristol and Bolton. Details are here.

While the Portas pilots offer a relatively small amount of money (£1m divided between 12 towns) the real benefit is likely to be from the partnerships that come together during the planning stage. Those that press on with their ideas even when there isn’t money on the table are the ones to watch.