Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A plan to save our town centres

How's your Christmas shopping going? Only 18 days until Christmas so you'd better get on down to your local High Street sharpish. Or maybe, like me, you wont bother to hit the High Street this year, as there is little worth putting under your tree, or in your loved one's stocking, on the shelves of the charity shops, discount stores, bookies and mini-markets that litter our town centres.

Last night the BBC's Inside Out programme looked at the rising number of empty shops on our High Streets. Their investigation concluded, while some types of businesses are in decline, new firms are springing up offering services not easily available on the internet. Ultimately though, more shops close than new ones open. There has been a shake-up, even in my life-time, brought on by technological and social change. However, planning laws and local authorities have had a significant impact too.

Planning rules leave me cold which is a shame as they are fundamental to how the world around us - our streets and neighbourhoods - develop. I grew up in a once thriving market town which, like too many others, is in decline. To use a classic media cliche; it was bustling. Somewhere in the last 20 years the bustle has left it and the charity shops have moved in.

A couple of year's ago I wrote a letter to the local paper - the Evesham Journal - calling on those standing for election to the town and district council to make the kick up the arse the town centre needed, central to the election. Subsequently there has been significant investment on the aesthetics of the town. Too many shops remain empty. Why? Because planning permission is given to out of town developments while prime retail units on the High Street are idle. Action on this goes way beyond shunning Tesco and backing an Evening Standard style 'Save Our Small Shops' campaign - however worthy its aims. We need a fundamental shift in how we plan our towns.

Way back in 2006, when a press officer in CCHQ, I helped publicise Michael Heseltine's 'Cities Taskforce'. Among this work was a policy proposal drafted by Mark Prisk, now a minister in the Department of Business. In it he advocated radically shaking up our suburban estates, town centres and, indeed, the way we all live and work. I wonder what happened to that plan.

Even a small, rural town centre like my home town of Evesham is a shuttered ghost town at night. People leave the town centre to return to their homes on the new estates within the boundary of the by-pass. The result is an unwelcoming place perfect for anti-social behaviour. The flip side to this is, during the day, when the children are at school, Mum and Dad at work, the new estates of 'executive homes' are empty. At best a place bereft of community, at worst a magnet for more anti-social behaviour or more serious crime.   

So why not change the way we develop our towns? Mix residential developments with shopping, schools and a mix of building types. Make our towns sustainable, stop favouring out of town shopping and other developments, reduce the dependency on the car and reignite these once thriving communities.

Involve the residents in a way too many planning decisions currently do not. Get people to invest in the long term health and well being of their community and their family. Town centres where people live and work so families use their local High Street and then feel happy walking around at night. Suddenly you have enacted a societal shift in favour of local communities, and soon you won't have to drive to the out of town mall to buy your Christmas presents.  

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