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How new is your Agora?

One of the documents which seems to have heavily informed the Portas review of the high street is the ‘21st century Agora’ which posited ways to breathe life into town centres by reference to the agora in classical Athens which constituted a political, administrative, social and commercial space at the heart of the city.

Portas herself identifies town centres as civic space. She also identified the significance of the changing nature of the consumer. But it seems to me that the agora concept is helpful in emphasising that other staple of classical Athens – the citizen and the role of democracy in a well-functioning state.

There is some irony in saying this because the review team did not always cover themselves in glory by seeming to ignore representative democracy’s collective voice at local level and the LGA duly – and rightly – complained. But that should not prevent us from a glass half full reading of some of the opportunities that the report presents.

If we deal first with the many reasons to see the glass as half empty one would cite the pilots as a sop positioned in a very uncertain context with little by way of resources and no clear trajectory.

There is an argument that this is a hospital pass – one of those things that government decides to push to local level because frankly it looks like a bit of a tough one. And indeed it is. As the review states – the public sector cannot make the high street work however hard they try. The sense of wider forces that can blow away local efforts and (although we now have the NPPF) there is real uncertainty about the extent of the new powers and roles suggested in the report and whether they would be sufficient to make much of a dent.

The places that may be covered by pilots are also very different – market towns, local centres in cities, seaside towns etc – so what will be demonstrated by one place for others? The whole notion of ‘town teams’ is hardly ground breaking. The previous government was hardly inactive on these issues issuing a tome of guidance to practitioners on managing town centre partnerships. One anticipates that new ‘town teams’ will not be so different to an ‘advanced’ town centre partnership.

The whole thing also has a bit of a circus feel – ‘celebrity led’ regeneration as another blogger on this site has aptly put it.

But there is clearly considerable enthusiasm – large numbers of places are considering making bids and their standard is expected to be high (as indeed Ms Portas herself has already said in a few cases).

That enthusiasm is not surprising. The review was a response to the widely held view that ‘something must be done’. In short many people take the view that our town centres and high streets are significant for us in the variety of ways that were important in 5th century Athens: social, commercial, and administrative.

So if we are looking for a positive view:

  • The approach on town teams emphasises collective and integrated planning and management. These are not phrases that one commonly hears under the current dispensation so it is particularly welcome and it seems a clear opportunity for both the place shaping and the place shielding roles of councils to come to the fore
  • The emphasis on getting landlords to the table and playing a role as well as all partners looking in a clear eyed way at who owns what is a major step in the tight direction and distinguishes successful town teams from business improvement districts
  • It is an opportunity to clarify the question or problem is being addressed. Is it lack of homogeneity; footfall; vacancies; access; design; public space; safety and security; amenity; local supply chains…? A collective analysis backed up by some proper data which is generated and held for the collective good in the area; it’s starting to sound like a strategy
  • The emphasis on multi functionality in town centres is a step towards an emphasis on the role of public space and public services as well as providing space for those who want to be able to try things out (as the 21st century Agora document proposed and Wayne Hemmingway has more recently and more provocatively suggested ). Public services can be a strong draw – health, learning, exercise. Childcare could be a significant part of the mix using space above street level. So public services as catalyst and driver
  • There is the scope to make a case for a positive role for regulation (as opposed to the kicking that it generally receives as ‘red tape’) and to take on powers from other organisations to better managed and indeed to start to co-regulate the area
  • There is the scope to do things creatively with communities whether it is somewhere on the co-production matrix or where there are some genuine opportunities to use powers in the Localism Act
  • There is the scope to make neighbourhood planning play a positive role, possibly by proposing that a town team and a neighbourhood planning body are one and the same for the area concerned. Whilst the ambit of neighbourhood planning remains untested, it seems highly likely that some of the documents such as town centre policies and street books would be covered and these could be a very beneficial outcome from a properly developed town centre strategy.

In short, if one goes into glass half full mode for a moment, suspends disbelief and conjures up at least some cash to make a reality of it; there is something refreshing about a locally driven, collective, planned response which emphasises civic roles and people as citizens not just consumers.

Clearly this enthusiasm could all start to evaporate and many more places are going to be disappointed than will be successful in the pilot process. But at the moment I’m not going to succumb to agoraphobia.

Indeed to use another classical allusion, one might start to see town teams as something of a Trojan Horse.

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