One of the impressive aspects of the book is the passion and energy that Dobson brings to his stories. Fundamentally, he sees town centres as much more than somewhere to go shopping. “To imagine our high streets as simply a collection of shops, services and meeting places is to miss the magic of what happens when people bring places to life, and places give people a stage” he argues. He is critical of retail-led regeneration: projects like Liverpool One do not create wealth, they merely concentrate it.
Follow the money
Dobson points to the need to follow the money and try to reduce the leakage of spending out of local economies. he explains how the shopping malls, the supermarkets and internet giants like Amazon are stripping life out of traditional town centres. He champions local independent stores and producers over national and international chains, but also shines a light on the role of landlords, noting in particular the part played by the banks in running down the high streets.
Instead of ownership we should think of stewardship if we are to have the kind of town centres people and politicians seem to want. To steward a site or building you have to ensure that it is being used – a stroll through so many streets shows that “this first rule of stewardship is constantly broken.” Dobson recognises that community ownership is not a sure-fire winner, but it is a far better option than the “get-rich-quick approach” of many commercial owners.
It’s not just the banks and big business who have let down town centres, the public sector has also failed. The centralising hand of central government in the UK and its austerity policies is not delivering vibrant town centres. Too often the planners in local government appear risk averse and behind the game when it comes to responding to the pace and nature of change. Local authorities relocate schools from central sites to the edge of town while bemoaning the decline of their town centres.
The book is crammed full of inspiring stories of radical local initiatives that show how, despite the odds, people can make a difference. There are local currency schemes like the Bristol Pound, or the conversion of the glass-covered Galleria at the Erieview Mall in Cleveland, Ohio, to change a shopping centre into a greenhouse for growing fruit and vegetables. Totally Locally is a growing campaign to encourage every adult to spend £5 in a local independent shop rather than online or at a supermarket: it's not much for one person but the fivers add up and trigger multiplier effects within a local economy. Building strong local networks is a key part of sustaining town centres.
The Incredible Edible initiative is an exercise in “guerrilla gardening” that began in the small Pennine town of Todmorden. It basically involves planting in unlikely places - - growing vegetables in tubs outside a police station, for example – an inviting anyone who fancies it to pick and eat the produce.
What is to be done?
Dobson’s case is unapologetically that a radical agenda is needed to save town centres. He calls for a shift in thinking and practice “from ‘me’ towns to ‘we’ towns”. It means understanding town centres in a holistic way, drawing on Geddes’ dictum of “folk, work, place”. Town centres need to work for children if they are to work at all. There should be scope to accommodate the unexpected and to tap into local knowledge about a place. Dobson’s practical passion achieves his aim – it provides hope for the future of town centres.
How to Save our Town Centres: A radical agenda for the future of high streets is published by the Policy Press and is available in paperback for £23.99. Click here for more information.