What should be done with our high streets? Novel suggestions abound at the moment. The Sunday Politics South East devoted a section this week to the proposal on Kent County Council that a tax be levied on large supermarket chains and the proceeds be spent on Kentish towns’ high streets.
Meanwhile, in Derry-Londonderry, 2013’s City of Culture, the local council tidied up the city by installing fake shop fronts in empty units to make the city more appealing to tourists.
The way we use our environment, and in particular our ‘urban’ environment (by which I include village in this instance), has been changing for decades, first with the invention of supermarkets, and latterly of course with the internet. There’s nothing wrong with those changes – indeed, people shop in supermarkets and online because it makes the process quicker, easier, cheaper and more appealing.
It’s natural to want to preserve our environments as we know them, but these changes in the way we shop and interact socially are bound to have an effect on our high streets. Likewise, the way we do business will change urban spaces and impact transport policy – more and more people are setting up businesses that allow them to work remotely, rather than commuting to work in an office.
Yet this natural evolution in the way we live does not appear to have been factored into planning in general. Little surprise perhaps, as councillors tend to be predominantly drawn from older age groups who are understandably most likely to want to see the towns they have lived for many years preserved as they are. But as the years go on, a rethink of the way in which we want to use our high streets and urban spaces is surely a must.
Modern transport has shrunk our world. Before cars, my village would have been a three hour walk from the nearest market town, so it made sense for shops and services to be provided locally. Now I can be at Tescos or on my high street in under ten minutes (and regularly am).
People also have a greater tendancy to move around the country according to changing jobs and lifestyles. I myself have lived in seven different towns in the last decade; my sister has done something similar (in her case she made it as far as New York, Moscow and Hamburg for periods of time). So although we hear a lot about youngsters wanting to stay in the village in which they were born, it’s probably more accurate to say that they want to return their when they settle with a partner (who may not be from the same place).
While these changes has meant the demise of local provision of every service, it offers opportunity by way of specialisation. My village is home to a very good residential home for disabled adults, who would love to see their facilities more widely used by disabled people in the community. I’m told that the county council may also be able to replace our high kerbs with wheelchair friendly ones. Could we, by making small changes to the way the village is laid out, ‘specialise’ in being a village that people with extra needs might want to live in?
Our changes would also have a knock-on effect – the local bus company might be more minded to provide buses adapted for wheelchair use, or some enterprising soul might set up a taxi company providing a similar service, as there would be enough trade to justify it.
This sort of specialisation is nothing new – the larger cities have always sported a ‘jewelry quarter’, ‘restaurant quarter’, even a ‘red light zone’. But the population level in more rural areas has never been able to support these specialisations, until now. We could have ‘foodie towns’, ‘arty towns’ and ‘theatre towns’.
So why don’t we? In a word, planning. Our current planners are so obsessed with preserving our historical use of public spaces, they don’t appear to have realised that that way of life has gone. Added to other problems such as lack of flexibility over business rates, it all adds up to empty shop fronts across Britain.
There’s only one thing for it: if we want to enjoy our city, town and village centres as bustling, tidy environments again, we must revolutionise the way planning is regulated.