Friday, 17 April 2009

Never mind Starbucks we’re going to have a gallery on every street corner.

Communities are to be given the power to use empty shops as temporary art galleries and advice centres under plans announced by Communities Secretary Hazel Blears. The policy has been prompted by a warning issued by the Local Government Association earlier this week that Britain’s high streets are at risk of becoming ‘ghost towns’ as a result of the economic downturn.

Speaking to the BBC Ms Blears, the one bright spot of irrepressible optimism on an otherwise gloomy and exhausted government front bench said: ‘Town centres are the heartbeat of every community and businesses are the foundation so it is vital they remain vibrant places for the people to meet and shop throughout the downturn.’

The plan has met with criticism from Tory Shadow Communities Secretary Caroline Spellman, who attacked the government for scrapping rate relief on empty properties, a move, she said had ‘made maters much worse’ for small businesses, she also criticised new planning rules favouring out of town developments which, she said, ‘will soon make it even worse for high street shops.’

Caroline Spellman has a point more could and should be done to reduce the ruinous costs placed on small businesses, whether they trade on the high street or elsewhere. For decades it has been far too easy for developers to gobble up green field sites by building ugly retail parks and vast soulless estates with minimal service infrastructure and no real sense of community. It would be a mistake though to dismiss this latest initiative out of hand.

Hard though it may be to see it in a week when the sub sixth form silliness of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damian McBride aided and abetted by the perennially irritating Derek Draper fatally compromised the party’s integrity this plan shows that, in policy terms at least, Labour still has something worthwhile to say.

It makes infinitely more sense to use empty shops as community facilities than to leave them to rot and Hazel Blears, often mocked in the media for her Tiggerish optimism, deserves to be praised for consistently championing the need for the public to be involved in the decision making process.

Finding new uses for old buildings should not though be seen as all that needs to be done in order to revive Britain’s fading town centres. We need to return to the idea that living in town is an attractive option for families not just the ‘young professionals’ featured in the glossy brochures put out by speculative developers or the invisible underclass. Doing so requires public and private investment to be ploughed into building decant affordable housing, creating attractive public spaces and repairing the public transport system.

Another and perhaps the most vital ingredient in reviving our moribund inner cities is giving local government and through it communities a real say in how and where regeneration funds are spent. What we need in fact is the making into a reality one of the sound bites New Labour threw off during its salad days, joined up government.

It may be a little late for the current government to finish the project but it could do much to expiate the worst of its excesses over the past decade by getting the process started.

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