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Citizens NOT shoppers

A vibrant future for our towns means we must reject the idea that they are for for shoppers, and reassert our towns as spaces of citizenship. We must refill the empty consumerism, with stronger sense of citizenship and local identity.

Our towns and town centres are a unique feature of Britain, representing our history and identity. They offer a unique space where we can mingle, watch, share and feel part of a community. Many countries would die for our rich historic cores and deep identity. However, we have neglected them and the soul of our town centres and towns have been dripping away for decades.

Before the recession our strong economy created a buoyant retail sector which masked their decline as spaces of citizenship. We built more and more out of town retail, believing consumer demand would never falter. We choose retail over housing as it gave us better returns. We sold off old public spaces buildings and land to retail, and built shiny new facilities on cheaper land, but out of town. We created a dominant retail function. This undermined the role of town centres and towns role as places of citizenship, making them weak, un-resilient to economic change and very vulnerable to the rise of internet shopping. We created retail bubbles. And they are now bursting.

Retail is problem, so it can’t be the solution. Its therefore ironic that the government turned to no less than the queen of shopping – Mary Portas to report on the problem. To be fair, the Portas Review, does acknowledge that there is a wider use of the high street. But the report is not a recipe to reverse the extent to which our towns are dominated by shopping. Far from it. It is riddled with the logic of shopping and consumerism. We can’t go on treating town centres and towns as being about shopping, and people as shoppers.

Just look at the lexicon in the review. Retail is mentioned 294 times, housing 5 times. Spend is mentioned 308 times, music not mentioned once and culture twice. Grocer 183 times, demand twice. Retailer 72 times, citizen, once. Shop or shopping 81 times, play 12 times. Furthermore aspects of the review which were likely to actually be of some use, as regards addressing retail domination, such as the new powers from the secretary of state to have exceptional call in of ‘out of town’ planning applications were rejected by government. The forces which created an empty comsumerism and emptied our town centres remains untouched.

In finding a new use function for our town centres, we must move away from this unfettered and failing consumerism and the attitudes and ways of thinking which support it. Underpinning this, is a systemic review of what our towns are for. In this, key issues around historic identity, culture, housing, planning and wider economic role of towns and town centres are vital. These areas should not bow to the god of retail, as is so often the case, but be key elements in their own right. In many towns the best thing that could be done, is actually half the high street, and build social housing for citizens instead.

The town teams must establish themselves as a key fora for debates about how they and the wider place reinforces local citizenship, identity, a sense of belonging and grow human, social and environmental capital. They must grow citizenship not shopping.

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