New Internationalist

Britain’s town centres: let battle commence!

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Planners turning a deaf ear to local traders ignore the community at their peril says Horatio Morpurgo.

In the southern English county of Dorset, a short walk from Bridport town centre, the St Michael’s Trading Estate doesn’t, at first, look like much. The local industry (rope-making) moved out in the 1960s. The range of buildings left behind came to be managed by a socialist landlord who let the old factories as low-rent start-up units. His son still manages it. This is where Clippers Tea started, as well as Top Gear, a supplier of car parts. Still based nearby, these are now national companies. The biggest homeware store on the town’s high street also started here. It’s still home to many businesses, a youth club, artists’ studios, an antique market and a popular café.

In the current assault on the real economy, town centres everywhere have woken up to find themselves on the frontline

You might think plans to build more than a hundred dwellings on such a site, in the middle of the worst slump in 80 years, would be doomed. And the proposal was indeed rejected unanimously by the Town Council and by 98 per cent of those who responded to the consultation. The District Council’s own Planning Officer strongly recommended refusal, not least because of the impact on employment.

At a meeting held 17 miles away on a weekday afternoon, a so-called Development Control Committee waved the proposal through. Its most vociferous supporter excused himself from questions on the grounds that his deaf-aid wasn’t working. None of the other members was able to explain their decision. The hearing broke up in disarray.

Turning a deaf ear

This is how decision-making works on the ground in one of the world’s oldest and boldest exporters of ‘democracy’. Until recently I might have hesitated to draw larger conclusions from what is happening a five-minute walk from where I’m typing this. Independence Day put me right about that. Organized by a group fighting Tesco in Frome, Somerset, the event brought together businesspeople, writers and activists to start co-ordinating a response to what is happening in Britain’s town centres.

sermoa under a CC Licence
The British high street is under threat from out-of-town shopping centres and supermarkets. sermoa under a CC Licence

Because local government seems to be having trouble with its deaf-aid right across the country. The more we talked, the more there emerged a mysterious pattern to the way councils are experiencing this difficulty in hearing what people tell them. Unglamorous they may be, but in the current assault on the real economy, town centres everywhere have woken up to find themselves on the frontline.

And yet Independence Day was at its heart an affirmative event. The real conversation was about what the economy is for and what it means, now, to like the places where we live. Andrew Simms, author of Tescopoly, spoke about the common ‘background of values’ against which our different cases are being played out. Our economy understands value solely as maximizing return to the developer and / or remote shareholders. Mention of other values is met with polite (or not-so-polite) apologies as those who manage and maintain this system fumble with their deaf-aids.

What if an economy is really there to create and sustain livelihoods? As one manufacturer back in Bridport put it to me: ‘This place is a reality-check for the town. People make things here. If I want a metal bracket I don’t go online. I go to the guy who can make it, I get exactly what I want, and know I’m supporting somebody local.’ Local businesses, as Simms puts it, ‘build the micro-weave of your economy, making it denser, tougher, more vibrant.’

Our economy understands value solely as maximizing return to the developer and / or remote shareholders

The new capitalism, by contrast, chooses a moment like this to set about unpicking that weave, to scatter, erode. Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing, spoke to independent booksellers, grocers and café owners, all of whom are experiencing pretty much what he saw with independent music shops. The knowledge and social glue they all provide, their modest but longterm income, the face-to-face interactions, the personal relationships that are formed, all this is subtracted from the new business model. Places, it turns out, are not to mean anything to anybody any more.

Psychological resilience

Yet most people, given the chance, would prefer to live and work in a place they like. This is only natural. It’s also the reason why developers can only get their way by spending fortunes on publicity and quoting selectively from ‘studies’ they themselves have funded. It’s why the developer invariably runs some laughable campaign claiming that its scheme will boost employment and increase the ‘vitality and viability’ of the town centre. It’s why they have to buy supplements in the local press. It’s why developers have to (and regularly do) use case law to intimidate communities which resist them. It’s also why they launch personal attacks on the individuals who do so.

What all of this (very poorly) disguises is that the economic model being imposed on towns all over this country is chronically deficient in what human beings actually need. So in place of small-scale manufacturing with a future: a retirement and tourism economy with property speculation. ‘That’s just the way things are going.’ In the place of high-street businesses: charity shops, takeaways and funeral parlours. In the place of jobs in design, book-keeping, buying and selling stock, plumbing and maintenance – all of which a local business would source locally – dead-end shelf-stacking jobs and managers brought in from outside.

When supermarkets are cheaper it’s because someone else is being made to pay

Because what this ‘economy’ seeks above all is to undermine the psychological resilience people derive from being from somewhere. Just as it financially cannibalizes the communities from which it extracts its profits, so it feeds on the resulting disillusionment and apathy. ‘Supportive apathy is our worst enemy’, as Joanna Blytheman put it in discussion with her fellow journalist John Harris. ‘You know: I agree with you really but there’s nothing to be done.’ So in place of the cheap, fresh, nutritious fruit and vegetables which your local grocer supplies (Blytheman suggests people go and check before they rubbish that claim), a consumer-industrial complex plying us with advertising and over-priced goods, the inferior nutritional value of which was long ago exposed. As was the ruination of soils and rural livelihoods, by the contracts the big stores use to ensnare farmers. When supermarkets are cheaper it’s because someone else is being made to pay. Whether that’s a farmer five miles away or the smallholder in East Africa evicted from their living so that we can have roses all year round.

John Harris spoke of the built environment as a part of our identity, whether or not the value of such attachments can be measured by some accountant. He wasn’t opposed to supermarkets in themselves – he uses them, as we all do. ‘We have to transcend the No – to be not so much against this or that, but for town centres which are about being and making and doing, not just consuming.’

Ideas like this have yet to penetrate the deaf-aids set in authority over us. Perhaps somebody might like to switch them on. Because to those treacherous, well connected incompetents who currently operate the planning system, Independence Day had this to say: the spirit which informed UK Uncut and the Occupy movement is far from dissipated. It is liable to crop up in the unlikeliest places. And some of it has been doing homework on the way you arrive at your decisions.

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