I live on the edge of the Farthing Downs in Surrey; a beautiful chalk downland almost unchanged since man first inhabited it nearly 6,000 years ago. It attracts all sorts of people, dog walkers, runners, cyclists, walkers – people all enjoying the space together. It is a wonderful landscape for all the community to enjoy. It is maintained and nurtured by local volunteer and partnership groups and in recent years more areas have been opened up for the enjoyment of everyone. In fact, the Farthing Downs is in many ways no different to the same community’s Town Centre. And yet, I sense that the High Street is not viewed in necessarily the same way.
Much has been said and reported on regarding the relative merits or otherwise of the Portas Pilots; the 12 lucky towns which were each given £100,000 investment fund in May 2012 to help accelerate the regeneration of their High Street. Much has also been written about the majority of the money still sitting in local councils bank accounts and I find this difficult to comprehend.
One such is Croydon, not far from the Farthing Downs and I went along recently to see what a Portas Pilot looks like in the flesh. The historic Croydon Old Town which has Surrey Street and Exchange Square at its heart was the chosen area of Croydon which won the bid. The objective was to regenerate the area as a cultural centre. In reality it is a ghost town not one shop of any description has taken up residency, there is one solitary rather run down looking bar and apart from the usual rather unsavoury characters loitering there in the evening there is nothing. Even the “Marketing Suite” is boarded up. Whether it was right to use a TV celebrity (I use the words advisedly) to front this or to have proper experienced retailers involved is open to debate but one thing is certain, the scheme has failed spectacularly. As of 31st December just £4,500 had been spent of the £100,000 allocated to Croydon. And this is reflected in the majority of the other towns chosen.
What has gone wrong? Are local councils so apathetic and bound in red tape and bureaucracy that they are simply unable or unwilling to take action? As part of the scheme expert “mentors” were appointed to assist and advise on how best to go about spending the cash; most are still waiting for the call.
This is a lamentable situation and I find myself wondering why do local communities seemingly accept it? After all the High Street istheir High Street just like Farthing Downs is theirs to use and enjoy. Maybe this is at the heart of the problem. Too many people seem to think that the High Street is for the retailers to sort out by making sure it’s always full of shops and therefore is somehow discreet from their opinions and concern. This malaise coupled with crippling business rates and rent is creating High Streets which are no longer primary or even secondary sites for many retailers. As online shopping continues to grow retailers are more than ever trying to optimise ie. reduce the number of stores they have and are also increasingly wanting prime sites which usually means shopping malls and out of town retail parks. And what perhaps is key to all this is that the pace of change now is both faster than ever before and is relentless.
Perhaps it is time to enlist the help of some different people in order to restore that sense of ownership and, dare I say it, pride in the High Street. After all, the Farthing Downs is looking in pretty good shape.