From ‘me’ towns to ‘we’ towns: a vision for the future

Markets picture

‘Me’ town or ‘we’ town? A market for the people

One year ago, the Portas Review of the high street echoed our vision that the high streets of the future should be ‘multifunctional social centres, not simply competitors for stretched consumers’.

The response to the review I coordinated last year was collaborative, and those of us who compiled it believe a positive future for our high streets lies in collaboration and co-operation. Mary Portas described our input as ‘inspirational and invaluable’. But in the daily grind of survival, it’s easy to feel anything but inspired.

We need to keep looking up and looking ahead. The anniversary of the Portas Review is a good time to take stock, to see what has changed and to ask where we want to go.

Our town centres and high streets have had another difficult year. The difficulties of large retailers like Peacocks and Comet have made the headlines, but there has been a lot going on away from the spotlight. Facilities such as libraries and council services have also closed; councils have had less money to invest in regeneration schemes and town centre management; ordinary people have less money to spend. But there’s positive news too: a wave of ‘town teams’ across England working to bring high streets to life; business people and social entrepreneurs finding new uses for neglected and empty buildings; a new passion in many places for local identity and local products.

It can be easy to get bogged down in the detail. But the future of our town centres isn’t about having a solution to parking issues, or getting the business rates right, or attracting new customers (though all of these are important in their own way). Our town centres will have a future when they are places where people have a reason to visit, a stake in their success and a sense of belonging.

So, building on the proposals we put forward in The 21st Century Agora, here are some of the key challenges and opportunities for our town centres in 2013 and beyond, and some long term ambitions we can begin to adopt.


Three big challenges town centres face

1 Austerity. Not just now, but for years to come. The result is that real incomes are falling and there are now more working people living in poverty than there are poor people of working age outside the labour market.[1] People will have less money to spend. This fundamentally challenges consumer culture.

2 Ownership. Town centres no longer belong to their communities. Property is increasingly held by distant landlords who have little interest in the locality, or by banks who have acquired it when the landlord failed. A growing proportion of ‘public’ space is under private ownership, and even activities like busking and taking photographs are restricted. Community venues and public services provided by voluntary organisations and local councils are closing because of funding cuts. Each closure removes a link between the place and the people.

3 Value. The dominant big brand retail-led town centre model extracts value from places rather than adding value to them. Success is judged by how much people spend, not by what they can create.


Three big opportunities for town centres

1 A broken property system. The model of ‘develop, let, flip, and cash in’ has failed our communities. Based on maximising returns to investors, it has undermined benefit to localities, leaving towns blighted with an acne of empty shops. This creates an opportunity to repurpose unused buildings, both temporarily and permanently.

2 A broken retail system. The concentration of ownership and gradual elimination of competition has left towns at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere. Those decisions increasingly involve reducing the number of outlets and focusing on larger, ‘prime’ centres. But this creates an opportunity to rebalance our town centres in favour of independent, locally based traders. One of the few bits of good news on the high street is the growing number of independent retailers opening in many places.

3 A broken economic system. Five years on from the financial crash, it is clear we are not going to shop our way to prosperity. Town centres need to become places of production, not just consumption, linking local markets with local enterprise and economic development. There is an opportunity to rediscover how the civic, commercial and social can be brought together in town centres for mutual benefit.


Three long term ambitions to start working on

1 Community use and ownership of property. Control and use of town centre property needs to be brought closer to home. Information about ownership needs to be publicly available; owners should have a duty of care to their locality; and where physical assets have been left unused, there should be a ‘right to try’ if local community organisations or businesses have ideas that can bring them back into use. Long term, we should revive the Garden City principle of vesting ownership of town centre assets in a local trust.

2 Local accountability through resident-led planning. Community planning of town centres needs to become the norm, not the exception, with local decisions about the right balance of residential, business, retail and social uses in the town centre. It needs to be supported by proactive and engaged local authorities who invest in people – town centre facilitators, agitators and animators – rather than in strategy confetti (paper thrown at people in the hope it will bring them luck).

3 Reconnect production and consumption. Making, creating, repairing and re-using are activities that provide worthwhile work and give people purpose, hope and material rewards. By making our town centres places of production we rebalance them in favour of sustainable economic activity and reduce their vulnerability to the failings of a froth economy that can only thrive when disposable income is high.


Three steps in the right direction

1 Recirculate money within the local economy. The Brixton Pound, Totally Locally towns and similar initiatives in Bristol and Lewes show this is possible. If major public institutions commit to a ‘spend local’ policy wherever possible they can make a significant difference to local wellbeing. The Mayor of Bristol is being paid in Bristol Pounds – can other civic leaders follow suit?

2 Make space for enterprise. New Windows on Willesden Green shows how empty space can be repurposed to give new businesses a chance to trade. The Made in Stirling shop linked local producers with the local market. A society that values entrepreneurship should make room for it. Instead of asking what sweeteners outside investors need to set up shop in our town, ask what will help to promote locally run and co-operative enterprises that work for the benefit of the community.

3 Rethink places to reflect local initiative. Incredible Edible Todmorden is not just a community growing project, but a way of rethinking and redesigning place in order to encourage sustainable living. Hebden Bridge is repurposing neglected civic buildings to meet local business and community needs. Totnes said ‘No to Costa’ to preserve local identity and support local traders.


And finally…

The best financial stimulus any town centre can have is for ordinary people to have more money in their pockets. So any future for our town centres must be linked with ways of creating new and sustainable economic activities accessible to people on low incomes.