Wanted? Town Centre Truth and Reconciliation Committees

Tuesday saw a motley gathering of 40 or so people at The Lighthouse in Glasgow at a “Towns Summit” co-organised by Architecture + Design Scotland and the Scotland’s Towns Partnership. The workshop was convened on the back of three contexts:

1. The Mary Portas Review of high streets in England

2. The research evaluation of the Town Centres Regeneration Fund in Scotland (the Wheeler Report)

3. The Exhibition on the High Street developed by Architecture + Design Scotland, and running at The Lighthouse until 17th April 2012 (mentioned in this blog before).

The aim was to focus on “violent conversations” to shape a brief to inform the Regeneration Division of Scottish Government (and others in Government) and the development and work of the Scotland’s Towns Partnership.

These group conversations were stimulated by short 5 minute provocations produced by four so-called provocateurs:

a. Julian Dobson, Director of Urban Pollinators (the 21st Century Agora) – see his provocation and thoughts on his blog.

b. Doug Wheeler, Director of Doug Wheeler Associates (the Wheeler Report)

c. Diarmid Lawlor, Head of Urbanism at Architecture + Design Scotland

d. and as a random factor, me (my 5 minute diatribe on anachronistic irrelevancies, nostalgic romanticism, cascading withdrawals, antiquated mindsets, dysfunctional property systems, vestigial appendices and impressions of Canute can be found here (A Provocation)).

Short, sharp discussions in groups followed to begin to set a new agenda for thinking about town centers in Scotland. Amongst the soundbite highlights were:

  • The need for an Association of Town Agitators and a “Collection of Wierdos” to pressure for change
  • A swathe of Town Centre Truth and Reconciliation Committees to be established, as we know (indeed maybe are) the guilty men and women and they should be made to put it right
  • The development of a “Framework for Mess” to get us back to what town centres should all be about
  • A “Do No Harm” ordinance for national government policy to create space for local actions.

All nice ideas, but what was being requested (demanded?) really was a substantive change in the way government and other agencies think and operate. How do we create spaces for things to happen rather than thinking we can create change centrally? How do we get rid of self-defeating and limiting key performance indicators, when we are really trying to enrich lives and places? Can we turn the town centre and the high street into the School, rather than isolating and compartmentalising everything? Which high streets and town centers will shrink and how, and which will die and how do we allow/encourage this – and possibly build in the potential to re-emerge?

As ever with town centres, the issues are complex and interrelated, but we have spent the last 50 years failing to recognise that the world has changed. As a consequence we have to urgently change how we are organised, how we think and what we do, especially as we reach tipping points and long-term economic withdrawal from many activities. The future of the town centre is not a simple case of redressing market failure, but is about building on genuine desires to see something exciting emerge and prosper. Easy to say, hard to do.

In the next few days I hope to append a short newsletter which will summarise the session better than I can. The formal newsletter summery of the morning is now available (Reimagining Alternative High Street Futures AM).

There are also some videos of the morning now available and some of the exhibition is also now available online.

If you have not seen the Lighthouse exhibition, then you really should go and make your “can contribution” to the debates.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues.
This entry was posted in Consumer Change, Government, High Streets, Mary Portas, Scotland's Town and High Streets, TCRF, Town Centres and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wanted? Town Centre Truth and Reconciliation Committees

  1. Leigh, a pity we didn’t get to chat – you should have been in our group (where we could not understand why your group were ‘incensed’ by the pragmatic truths you delivered for the opening plenary).

    It was we who suggested the High Street Truth & Reconciliation Commission – only partly in jest (the jest part was that it could ever be held in public). Our concern was similar to yours; about the failure to fully comprehend the scale of change needed on the part of some minds in local authorities, residential communities and even in a few business communities.

    Our serious intent was an act or process, yes even a symbolic one, that got out in the open a sense of honesty and proportionality and an end to what had not worked in High Streets (but that the powers-that-be still insist on being in denial and continuing with).

    On your point about the need for substantive change in and between Government agencies – it was us that wanted an end to the educational silos off bright shiny new schools in strange and unwanted ‘new’ locations outwith the social and business community. In fact, we wanted redundant High Streets turned over wholesale into becoming, for example, schools and colleges (come on kids, down to your local High Street and socialise and experience and learn all in one go).

    We also wanted at least one bold pilot where the enterprise zone approach was tried out in at least so-called ‘failing High Street’. Let’s remove the officials and the local elected officers from their elevated positions of power, dismantle the edifice of regulation and Big Planes that are so unsuited to the High Street – and let’s see what happens. (if it’s a disaster we can always have another truth and reconciliation commission afterwards).

    We would hope that that would build on ‘genuine desires to see something exciting emerge and prosper.’

    On the day I was intrigued to hear the concerns over the economy-at-all-costs driver of the public sector ‘HUBS’ in Scotland (notable that a majority of the participants had no idea what this is)

    My wee gripe about the event might be about the complete absence of big retail (or even any retail?)

    I still thought it was a good stab at moving the debate on – and we need to remember this is part of the consult and feedback exercise with Scottish Government. So there is more to play for.

  2. Douglas Brownlie says:

    for years the high street has been space colonised by retail interest and planning myopia without fear of retribution or repudiation. And now we wonder where is the high street these days? what is it for? such staged arguments (above) are merely a way of playing out the same set of special pleadings. The high street that captures the public imagination is the virtual high street – the one where parking is easy; where services are convenient and attractive; where there’s a great variety available; where the tradiing restrictions imposed by special interests are impotent; where the toilets are free; where the herding and kettling calculated by planners is undone……..

    come on retailers, you;ll have to do better than this reheat of outdated pretence of civic mindedness.

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