Sunday, 22 June 2014

Put this on a postcard working with people is the best way to improve our town centres

One day I was walking past the Lancaster Building, one of the iconic landmarks in Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre when I saw what I at first took to be an art installation in one of the empty shops on the ground floor. Such exhibitions are fairly frequent as the owners struggle to find a use for a building that may be iconic, but has no immediate commercial function.

On closer inspection the small cards stuck to the window of the empty shop turned out to be part of a campaign run by the charity Sustrans encouraging people to have their say on how public spaces can be improved. Some of the contributions, particularly those written by people with an unhealthy obsession with pigeons, were weird enough for an art gallery, most though, calling as they did for more independent shops in the town and a better bus station made exemplary good sense.

It would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as being part of the well meaning but ultimately doomed effort to make the world a nicer place that always gets flattened by the relentless onrush of capitalism. Except that in't really the case, it could actually be the best hope for reviving our town centres and our moribund democracy.

Actually Newcastle has fared better than many towns, there are too many empty shops and litter is a problem; the refurbishments to the outdoor market seem to have been dragging on forever, but things could be very much worse. The Castle Walk shopping development brings trade into the town and the feeling of decline and despair you get in other towns is notably absent.

When I thought later about what might go on my own card another nearby town centre sprang to mind, and it cut a much less happy picture.

Stoke, the town that gave my home city its name is a place where defeat and resignation seem to seep up from the paving stones. The town was marooned by a seventies road development and the arrival of a major supermarket a decade ago has killed many of the smaller retailers.

Now the town is a sad jumble of charity shops, takeaways and bookmakers; the sort of place traffic rushes through on its way to somewhere, anywhere else. My prescription for making the town better would be as follows:

Turn the unused space over many of the shops back into what it originally was, living accommodation, for a town to be truly alive people have to live there not just drive in to work than escape at four thirty.

Revive the dowdy and dying market by renting some of the stalls to students from the nearby Staffordshire University at a reduced rate, who knows a major retail empire might be started from one of them, it has happened before in other towns.

Last of all do something to encourage the town's dozen or so takeaways to use healthier locally sourced ingredients; burgers don't have to be made from reconstituted junk.

None of this is particularly original, the point is though I doubt I's ever have the chance to fill out such a postcard, the powers that be at the Civic Centre would walk barefoot over broken glass to get away from such an idea.

They are fond of running consultations, usually online with a prescribed list of questions, if you're lucky you might even get invited to elaborate on your contribution at an 'event' where some bright young thing from a marketing company writes down what you've said on a flip chart. These are then, I imagine, used to lag to loft at the Civic because they're never seen again.

Consultations by their very nature are corporate exercises, undertaken to confirm a policy position those in charge have already reached. Genuine opinions aren't wanted because they tend to be awkward, contradictory and generally get in the way.

Sustrans though seem to be doing something entirely different, something that is alien to the sensibilities of many people in local and national government; they're actually listening to people. The message they're getting back seems to be that people want ownership of the public spaces they use. They want them to be more accessible, more distinctive and most of all they want to be involved in making the decisions that shape this and other important areas of their lives.

It isn't that the political class don't want to build a better world themselves, they're just determined to go the wrong way about doing so. They seem to be afflicted by the last echo of the old imperial mindset, meaning they see the public as a huddled mass to whom things must be done for their own good and in order to make the world a better place.

This sort of thinking might have had its uses in the nineteenth century, but in the modern age when most people are literate and the internet gives us access to more information than ever before its not just inappropriate; its downright dangerous.

It results in billions of pounds being wasted on projects like building a new Civic Centre in Hanley or ripping up half the countryside to build HS2; elections where only a handful of people vote and the creation of an atmosphere of cynicism about politics in which the extremism of Ukip or worse prospers.

The truth so simple it always seems to elude the clever people who presume to govern us is that you achieve more by working with people than you do by imposing solutions from the top down. If you want to consult an expert about what its like to live in Stoke, talk to someone who has done just that all their life.

The role of government both local and national should be to first facilitate the discussions and compromises that will turn aspirations into reality and then to use its organisational ability and economies of scale to deliver the project.

Quite simple really, at least it is if those in the seats of power can develop the confidence to give we the people our head; they and we might be pleasantly surprised by the result.

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