Local Means Local

Just under a year ago I was asked to join the Future High Streets Forum, and soon after I became chair of the policy group of the Forum. This has given me an insight into some of the initiatives being taken to support high streets around the country, and I wanted to share something I’ve learned over that time.

In a new political world, where more decisions are made locally, it’s all about understanding what’s unique about a local area and celebrating and building on that. I’ve lost count of the number of “solutions” I’ve heard put forward in recent months that have been about creating a nationally-applicable process or structure for town teams and local partnerships. They won’t work. The best local partnerships are built outwards from the shops, pubs, streets and car parks that underpin the high street.

Bill Grimsey’s review of the high street fell down for this exact reason. His proposed approach for harnessing the many (and often quite good) ideas he pulled together for high streets was to create a Town Commission for every town. Immediately, that would exclude smaller centres that wouldn’t have the resource to dedicate to setting up this infrastructure, and who could deliver more without the meetings, agendas, minutes and action points that are a necessary side effect of larger, more structured partnerships.

Some of the best things I’ve seen delivered to support local shops recently have been highly localised and organic, like this infographicproduced in Peterborough, or David Knight’s leadership in Hassocks – which we’re featuring at ACS Summit on 25 March. We have to move past the old mindset of nationally set structures and get to grips with what localism means.

Part of this is remembering what powers local authorities now have on issues like business rates. I fully support the need for a fundamental review of the business rates system, but aside from warning that those who are pushing for this should be careful what they wish for, I would draw attention to the ability of councils to offer discretionary rate relief. This needs to be more widely used, and while Ministers and council leaders have a responsibility here, there’s a great opportunity for local shops to take the initiative and press for rate reductions. No council is going to reduce your costs so that you can drive a better car, but you might be surprised at how they react to considered ideas for using discretionary rate relief to support improvements to a parade or neighbourhood.

As a caveat to this homage to localism, I would point out that there is one area where national leadership is crucial in order to make local centres and high streets viable – the proper use of the town centre first planning policy. Far too much development is taking place out of town, and the decisions on where to invest are being made according to national strategies drawn up by big developers. A strong town centre first message, backed by Ministers calling in bad out of town development and stopping it, would force developers to think about more inventive town centre development rather than rushing out of town.

Even in this area, however, local retailers can influence planning policies, and here’s our guide on how to approach this.

Localism is here to stay, and I think this is a positive evolution in UK political culture. If you don’t embrace it, you could end up fighting yesterday’s battles.

This entry was posted by Victoria on Thu, 30/01/2014 - 14:31