Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Can we now stop saying town centres are for shopping?

‘She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture…’

I've felt like something of a lone voice in all this - bashing away at the shiny regeneration on the one hand while pointing out to locovoracious folk that their dream of twee high streets filled with organic independent shops (probably workers co-ops or some other form of trendy model) is just as daft.

Indeed these people - epitomised by Julian Dobson - still bash away at the idea that there's some magical system of common ownership that will change the high street:

What’s broken isn’t just the retail model of HMV or Jessops, or the business rates system, or city centre parking, or any of the individual bugbears blamed for the demise of the high street. What’s broken is our own ability as citizens to share in the ownership, management and use of the spaces we occupy. It’s about the whole place, not just the shops.
I agree that it's about the whole place. I agree that it isn't just the shops. But this idea of us "sharing" the ownership is just so much wiffle. I'm not interested in some sort of 'commons' system where I sort of own it but not really and where we get endless rows and scraps about who should be allowed to do what on that common land. Up here in Cullingworth, the council stopped fifty years of moto-cross and scrambling on the Flappit because it wasn't the right sort of use for that particular 'urban common'.

If you want things to work, they have to be owned. And right now the only bits of the town centre that are 'owned' are the shops, which is why we're still talking about retail rather than about town centres as the stage on which we perform. In the Portas Review we read how the high street needs to be run more like a business - more like the out-of-town malls in fact:
“High streets should be run more like businesses. And businesses are run on the basis of strategic vision. However, unlike the sophisticated shopping malls or large retailers, high streets aren’t overseen by a single landlord or professional management body.”
The retail establishment - the shiny regenerationist - view is that we carry on more-or-less as before - rather as we see in Bradford where the council uses its own funds and Regional Growth Fund to subsidise the business rates of new or relocating businesses. A straightforward bung to businesses will do the trick. Except they don't appear to be flocking to the city.
As we see, the trendy place-maker view is all around 'commons' or, as Julian Dobson now seems to want, a public corporation approach. I don't think this will work - either we get the tradedy of the commons revisited or we get another pseudo-political corporation that can be captured by the very town centre interests Julian so dislikes.
My view is that we need to be far more radical:

A radical approach would be to transfer all that council owned land – the streets, the pavements, the market halls, the offices and the parks – into a for-profit company. Where, as in many places, the council owns freeholds of retail premises these can be added to the pot. And use that asset to create the excitement, the events and the environment – the “21st Century urban entertainment centre” that Ms Portas describes. That would be a radical approach rather than the rewarmed versions of existing – and mostly unsuccessful – strategies presented by Ms Portas.

The ownership of the company could vary – maybe co-operative or mutual, perhaps the local council or possibly a combination of these approaches. But it is essential – if the town centre is to be run like a business – the company is for profit. For it is the search for profit that makes the shopping malls and supermarkets creative, innovative and focused on getting the experience right for the customer.
Most importantly this approach isn't founded in shopping - for there is no future in retail as the main determinant of the town centre environment.


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