Sunday, 7 July 2013

Leisure and pleasure not tax and regulation - how to transform the high street

Next week Bradford will be debating a motion calling for a levy on 'large retailers' the revenue from which would be used by the council to do wonderful things so as to sustain high streets and town centres. It all seems very good:

That the Secretary of State gives Local Authorities the power to introduce a local levy of 8.5% of the rate on large retail outlets in their area with a rateable annual value not less that £500,000, and requires that the revenue from this levy be retained by the Local Authority in order to be used to improve local communities in their areas by promoting local economic activity, local services and facilities, social and community wellbeing and environmental protection.

But the truth is that this proposal represents - in terms of regeneration - a dead end. Not only does it make an arbitrary distinction in terms of business, essentially "big shop bad, little shop good" but it completely misses the reasons why, firstly, shops out of town are popular and secondly what drives change in high streets at the minute.

If we are to 'rescue' - or is the right word actually 'transform' - our high streets, we aren't going to do it through levies, taxes and regulations, through the use of governmental main force to order the way in which we shop. If we want great centres and high streets, we should start by looking at the ones that work and with asking why this is the case.

Above all though we need to stop thinking in terms of high streets as merely places where we shop. Two American academics (one an actual shop owner), Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart wrote about the 'ethnography of an American Main Street':

Other consumers and retailers describe social activities on Main Street, which they associate with a variety of experiences, including dining; window shopping; strolling for relaxation; jogging for health reasons; pub crawls; wine tastings; book clubs; language clubs; craft guilds; charity events; art events; parades; demonstrations; mass celebrations following major sports victories; and meeting friends. Many informants also refer to social interactions between and among retailers and consumers.

We recognise this description but miss out on the fact that all this meeting, playing, talking and enjoying takes place somewhere other than in a shop. We treasure these places because they are places of leisure and pleasure but just as importantly we are actors in the production of that pleasure. For sure, we want the meal in the restaurant to be tasty and the service to be smiling and easy but the real pleasure of the meal is in the company, the buzz and the interaction with our friends.

And we also know that such pleasure - the crowds, the buzz, the interaction - doesn't have to be in the high street. Julian Dobson writes about a London canal and concludes:

It’s easy on the eye, even if you wouldn’t want to investigate the canal bottom or some of the shrubbery too closely. It’s a place for wildlife. Sometimes it’s cultivated, with little gardens and pocket parks punctuating the path. The contrast with City Road couldn’t be greater.
The Regent’s Canal is a high street because it attracts people in the way that a good high street attracts people, whether it’s full of bars, shops or public buildings. It works because it’s a stage, a promenade and a garden. If we want our traditional high streets to have a future, that’s what they need to be too.

Despite these observations - academic and journalistic - public authorities remain wedded to direction, to tax and regulation rather than to creating the spaces that work. These won't all be havens of peaceful pleasure like the Regent's Canal - that's not everyone's leisure and pleasure - but they will be filled with people enjoying themselves, celebrating life and consuming the bounteous wonders that the world contains for our pleasure.

If there were no shops in the high street but it was filled with happy, smiling people out enjoying themselves would that not be a success? I think so.


1 comment:

singapore sling said...

They would have to be pedestrianised, though, wouldn't they?