Vague ramblings

Showbiz, do-gooders and perking up High Street UK

Posted in Business, St Albans, Urbanism by Ian Cundell on 23 April, 2014

Taken on the day the Olympic Torch came throughSmall town centres are under the cosh. Outflanked by out-of-town retail, inflexible and expensive, they are in deep, deep trouble.

What does it take to bring life to a struggling town centre? I’ve argued in the past that an “executive” rather that “committee” approach is best, because committees are where things go to die.

I also think that goals need to be clearly defined and measurable and set out in a contract, in order for accountability to work.

If we are to entrust accountability to such a contract – legal or social – we would do well to think carefully about what it is we are contracting for. If we don’t we end up with box ticking, and that would rather defeat the object.

Box ticking builds in fear of failure.

Given that goals need to be realistic and measurable, the temptation is to reduce this to “rent-roll” or some proxy of that. Has the unit on the High Street been let? Are the streets swept? Did the rent review get sorted? Even where town centre managers have direct control over such matters, they are hardly the cutting edge. I am wary of characterising all town centre managers as train-spottery geeks, obsessed with vacancy rates. So please grasp that I am stretching my point for the sake of contrast.

So what, exactly, am I asking of anyone charged with care of our small town centres?

Think, if you will, about that term: ‘town centre manager’. It doesn’t exactly smack of “sexy” does it? It immediately brings to my mind a similar term: “operations manager”. Now, let’s be clear, a good ops manager is a joy to have. But it doesn’t really make you think of, say, setting out a vision, does it?

But I am also very wary of town-clerk-to-chief-executive style name changes, where the role remains unchanged but with a fancy new label.

I am talking about a wholly new role.

Enter the Suburban Impresario.

It is inspired in part by James Hannaway who, though sheer force of will as much as anything, turned a derelict cinema in Berkhamsted into the staggeringly beautiful, and rightly renowned, Rex. He simply saw possibilities that others didn’t. And now, I suspect against his better judgement, he is close to pulling off the same magic in St Albans. While the Council and the Civic Society were faffing around over a site that remains undeveloped, Hannaway just got on with the job.

In St Albans, especially, it seems to me that he has been a suburban impresario. He galvanised the people of the City to take a punt to the tune of £1m – raised almost entirely by private subscription – on a vision, with no guarantees but a potentially magical outcome. He definitely doesn’t want to fail, but has shown no fear of failure.

Imagine a contract that said something like: “We require you to be open-handed in your dealings – no confidentiality clauses, no smoke-filled rooms – and if in 3 years there is no common consent that this town is a better place, you are fired. But if there is, you will be handsomely rewarded.”

Imagine this thinking applied to an entire town centre. Imagine an entire generation of suburban impresarios looking around their semi-arid suburbia and saying: “Right, how are we going to bring this place to life?”

Many places think they are doing that already. Let me explain why they are wrong.

We need accountability based on a clear chain of responsibility and authority, that is based on realistic and measurable goals, that, as a corollary, is goal focussed rather than procedure burdened, that liberates suburban impresarios to bring flair and imagination to our suburbs and small towns.

But there is one last element that needs to come in, and it is needed because goal-led visions are susceptible to that most dangerous form of abuse: fantasy thinking.

Working in various places around the south-east over the past few years it is striking how many of them, for example, are set on becoming “media centres”. It is a top-down thinking that all too often smacks of little more that “let’s chuck some broadband and wishful thinking at it”.

Media covers everything from one-man-band web designers to the BBC, from local newspapers to giant advertising firms. It is not a defined sector: it is a sweeping term – a buzzword.

There is one major media centre in the UK: west London. There are several lesser ones – Elstree and (sorry North West) Salford included. Everything else is just debris and if you are staking your future on “media” then you need to spend less time listening to your local university and more time looking at reality.

And that is the point. One criticism of the RDAs was the enthusiasm with which they threw around terms like “world class” and “top 20” without ever really defining them. They are vague marketing terms and have no place in a system of accountability. “World class” on what measure? “Top 20” of what league table?

A good role for do-gooders.

Nearly every locality has a cadre of do-gooders (and let me be clear, this is not in any way a pejorative term). They need something to do, and committees are not the place to put them.

Imagine a local “Standing Commission of Trustees”, composed of those who made their names and standing in the local economy, who are tuned into it and who have a lifetime’s worth of bullshit detection under their belt (I focus on business, but obviously other local interested parties need to be involved as well, despite my scepticism about the outlook of some).

Volunteer only, no budget, no expenses and a very simple role: to ask the basic questions at least once a year: are the suburban impresario’s goals being met? Are the measurement methods convincing? What are the reasons for both success and failure? Should anybody be rewarded or given the boot?

It’s a bit like charities and, having worked with some I have seen the good and bad in trustees. The Standing Commissions would need regular shaking up, so no-one should join who is not willing to take a stint as chair, say, and then give it up gladly for new blood.

They would have a statutory duty to hold officers and agencies to account; to slam the negligent and reward the excellent, without fear or favour.

But it should have a second duty: to ask the brutal questions.

Several years ago, Jonathan Lane, then chief executive of Shaftesbury plc, walked me around the company’s estate. Shaftesbury had just bought Carnaby Street. It was a fun walk, but two of his points stuck with me and encapsulate my thinking on “searching questions”. His first was “Who ever heard of a central London Street closing at 6pm?“ He wanted to bring nightlife back to a London icon.

But the second, for me, was much more telling. He pointed to a restaurant and said that the previous owners, an investing institution, were working hard to keep the tenant in occupation. Lane said (not verbatim, but in effect) that if he hadn’t paid his rent pretty soon the doors would be chained. Because, he said, he could already think of two or three better uses for the unit.

Brutal? To some, I suppose.

Hard-nosed? Certainly, and why not?

Likely to foster a more vibrant centre than trying to support a struggling tenant? I think so.

There is cognitive dissonance in our suburbs and small towns: on the one hand we try to run them like institutions: safe, stable, focussed on the past. On the other, we have grandiose visions, based on woolly thinking that, all-too-often, generate high streets that are never quite what we are looking for. And empty unit will find the lowest common denominator tenant.

The Standing Commission of Trustees’ most important role would be to set thinking free, but from a hard-nosed local perspective. Because the best rebuilding is done from the foundations.



One Response

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  1. disconnectedlandscapes said, on 23 April, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Reblogged this on Disconnected Landscapes.

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