Beyond the Portas review: what next for town centres?
Beyond the Portas Review
What next for town centres?
Julian Dobson, Urban Pollinators • www.urbanpollinators.co.uk
A perfect storm for retail
Retail is shrinking, polarising and dematerialising.
Many town centres are becoming obsolete as
Create places for people
If we create spaces where people want to go,
commerce will follow. In Melbourne, Australia, the
number of pavement café chairs rose from 1,940 in
1993 to 12,570 by 2009. As Ruskin said, there is
no wealth but life.
Public services under pressure
From ancient times, the agora was a civic hub as
well as a market. But we are systematically
stripping the civic out of our town centres to
achieve short-term ﬁnancial savings.
Reinvent the agora
Reconnect the civic with the social. Identify
where the human touch and social space make a
difference. Reinvent libraries, post ofﬁces and
advice centres as an ‘information commons’.
An economy that fails town centres
Competition for inward investment is a race to
the bottom where proﬁt is privatised and risk is
socialised. We need to rediscover the civic
enterprise of C19 Birmingham.
The producer city
Repurpose redundant retail space for start-up
businesses. Create places of possibility to grow
the local economy - like Handpicked Hall in
Skipton, Stirling CityLab and local workhubs.
Ghost towns with nothing to oﬀer
‘The whole village was sitting on the mountain when
they blew the klaxon horn and the pitheads were
blown up. Then all the jobs went and it went very
quiet. Then all the shops started closing and that was
the end of it.’ (Shirley Bufton, Trelewis, South Wales)
Reclaim the streets
The prospects of our towns are in the hands of
the people who live there. Businesses and
councils need to welcome them in and give them
space to create their future. Identify and support
helpful troublemakers instead of squashing them.
A broken property system
Our property system creates an unintended right
to blight. Valuations are excessive, business
taxation is inequitable, owners are negligent and
greedy, and sanctions are ineffective.
Reinvent the garden city
The founding principle of garden cities was the
recycling of proﬁts from land to achieve public
beneﬁts. We need to retroﬁt that principle to our
towns, with new rights to access, occupy and
improve unused property.
A growing housing crisis
232,000 new households are forming every year,
but only 109,000 new homes were completed in
2011/12. Private rents have risen 65% since 2001
and mortgages are increasingly unaffordable.
Repurpose retail space as homes
Town centres need to be places to live: affordable,
well serviced and protected from property
exploitation. Tenant-owned co-ops, self-build
schemes and community land trusts could create
lasting local value in former shop and ofﬁce space.
Climate change puts towns at risk
Many historic towns are prone to ﬂooding and
extreme weather. Public space, infrastructure and
property need to become part of the solution
rather than part of the problem.
Turn town centres into gardens
Town centres need to become part of our green
infrastructure. Roads can be wildlife corridors.
Vacant sites can be urban farms. Retailers can
help grow local food networks.
The challenge of planning:
Is saving our towns too diﬃcult?
The response: think about the whole, not
just bits. How can you turn your town into a
garden, a promenade and a stage?
And then make a start...