“Build Back Better” is an overused phrase at the moment bur Owl spotted this report a few weeks ago and now seems the right moment to post it. Its Author, Bill Gimsey, is a convert from cloning town centres (he has been CEO of Iceland) to something more individual. More reading for the new EDDC administration perhaps?
In 2013 he published a report on the state of the high street retail sector, The Grimsey Review, which led the Labour party to appoint him as an advisor. This was updated in July 2018 with a second edition of the review. The review highlighted the problem of the UK having too much retail space and suggested that the centres of cities and towns should focus on becoming community spaces.
When our Prime Minister emerged from hospital after spending several days in intensive care being treated for Covid-19, he signaled a change in priorities. Quoting the Roman statesman, Cicero, he said, “the health of the nation should be the supreme law”.
As this paper will argue, this ought to be put to the test in restoring our nation’s high streets and town centres. They are arguably the most symbolic representation of community wellbeing, yet shuttered shops and urban decay blight far too many areas. Rather than lift communities and strengthen social capital, they hold them back and breed isolation. Instead of acting as a catalyst for good health and neighbourliness, they’ve become a frontline for ill health and crime.
Faced with the huge challenge of rebuilding our high streets, we are presented with a golden opportunity to repair their neglected social fabric, lead a values-led period of social renewal and deliver lasting change.
Given the state of our battered local economies, this is no small task, yet this Grimsey Review COVID-19 supplement is optimistic we can rise to the challenge.
Out of the ashes and pandemic rubble will eventually emerge signs of recovery in every town up and down the country. Brave entrepreneurs will create businesses that reflect a new value system as people are appreciating spending less money, breathing cleaner air, noticing more wildlife and sharing a stronger sense of community. What is needed is a call to action, which encourages that process, removes the barriers to progress and facilitates change quickly.
This will require a huge shift in power from central government to local communities, putting the people best able to lead that change in charge. It will also require an understanding that the challenges facing our towns and high streets are simply too big for Westminster. They cannot be solved by pulling big levers in Whitehall. Our politicians’ job is to provide policies that empower communities to come up with solutions that are unique to their needs.The pandemic has changed everything in the sense that people have had to adapt to a life threatening crisis, change their behaviours quickly and a new normal is emerging. This paper examines the harsh economic facts largely exacerbated by an obsession to build more shops against a background where more people were switching to online shopping. Incredibly, this obsession still continues and more investment is going to end up misplaced and irrelevant. A recent YouGov poll revealed that only 9% of Britons want life to return to ‘normal’ after the coronavirus outbreak is over. People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown and they know a better life is possible – and our high streets have to be part of this.
To achieve this better life, it will be incumbent on government to blow away some of the restrictions of the past and put in place devolved powers that enable local communities to act. Business rates on retail and hospitality premises, for example, which have been waived for a year, can easily be dumped and replaced with a simpler system during this time. Literally all parts of the economy will change; global supply chains will be challenged, local tourism will become even more important, the commercial property sector will need to wake up as home working or working closer to home becomes accepted practice. Manufacturing should return in a big way as we start to reject global sourcing, exploitation of cheap labour and environmental damage. We will also need to re-examine pay structures, understanding that a prosperous society needs to recognize and reward essential workers in a fairer way.
We can only hope the leaders of our towns have used the lockdown opportunity to pause and reflect – and that decisive action will follow. We need to see ambitious plans to give all communities a proper stake in their economy. Old consumption driven thinking must make way for healthier driven strategies that meet the desires of a younger generation, embracing seasonality, community and unique experiences.
This change has little to do with shops and everything to do with the community spirit and togetherness kindled by this pandemic. Unique places will emerge embracing the ‘new normal’, using technologies in very different ways. Climate change, which has not gone away, will climb back up the agenda and become the priority of the next generation who will also inherit the biggest public debt since World War Two.
If we are going to come out of this period in better shape, then it will be because we have recognised the old model is broken. An exciting new model is now ready to be developed and implemented by inspired local leaders…
This is a model that:
- Sees a massive shift in power away from central government to local communities to give everyone a stake in their town centres
- Puts sustainability and the environment at the heart of everything
- Is based on quality of life, experiences and not blind mass consumerism
- Recognises and rewards great local leadership accordingly
- Devolves power locally, removes constraints and allows local communities to develop their places to compete for people to live, work, play and visit
- Removes old taxation that has become inappropriate
- Encourages sectors to jointly manage risk in order to prosper
Progress has been made since the Grimsey Reviews of 2013 and 2018 but it has not been as fast or as radical as it needs to be. Everyone has had a different experience during lockdown and many have recognised that the most important thing is our health. Collectively, we’ve had a real wake up and smell the coffee moment, except, ironically, it was a wake up and smell the ‘fresh air’ moment.
Turning this precious realization into a better future will require a lot of hard work and determined rebuilding. The following recommendations are a good place to start.