The majority of this blog entry is authored by my colleague Anne Findlay, who indulged in a little bout of town focused channel surfing one night last week and came across two very different views of towns. In the Scottish corner, Nicholas Crane (Oban) and in the English corner Mary Portas (Liskeard). Over to Anne…
On Tuesday 21st May at 9pm television viewers had a choice of two programmes about towns – BBC1’s ‘Town with Nicholas Crane’ and Channel 4’s ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’. Nicholas Crane’s programme featured Oban in Argyll and Mary Portas’ programme featured Liskeard in Cornwall. The programmes were very different each other. The presenters have very different personalities to say the least; more significantly however their understanding of towns appears to be also very different. The towns are obviously many miles apart but share problems affecting market towns and indeed towns in general.
Mary Portas blamed the vacancy rates in Liskeard on the closure of the livestock market, parking and an out of town superstore. Of these she saw the out of town superstore as the most significant. Her response was to make the fresh food offer in the high street more competitive by focusing on quality, freshness and provenance. Not a bad idea. Other initiatives included a branded Liskeard pie and a ‘Town Shop’ to promote new business. Initial enthusiasm for Mary Portas’ projects was subdued. This viewer was left feeling that this was not so much a bottom up project drawing on local social capital but rather a top down approach which only succeeded due to the determination of Mary Portas to make the TV programme. And as we know determination is one of her definite strengths. Nonetheless, since the making of the programme the ‘Town Shop’ has been repossessed and there is no evidence that the Liskeard pie has become a brand success.
Nicholas Crane was concerned with the wider town and not just the high street. He viewed local employment and local enterprise as key to the well being of Oban. Thinking about ways to increase dwell time in Oban, increasing local footfall and extending the tourist season are identified as the way to ensure that the town remains an important centre. Projects featured on the programme included the community initiative to re-open the livestock market securing additional local trade for the town, new outdoor pursuits enhancing the identity of the town as an exciting place to visit, a food festival intended to extend the tourist season and an emphasis on making local culture more accessible. The community intention is to transform Oban from a gateway to the islands to a destination centre in its own right.
This difference in perspective has several dimensions. The first is the narrow focus on the high street in the Mary Portas’ programme, which contrasts with the wider perspective on the town by Nicholas Crane. Place vs Shops perhaps and hopefully to be further reflected in the difference between the Mary Portas review of high streets and the ongoing Scottish Government’s review of towns. The second is in vision. For Oban a new identity is imagined, but for Liskeard interventions are much more limited in scope. Sustainability or a temporary fix? The third is a contrast between top down initiatives and one which capitalizes on emergent local enterprises.
Places are critically local if they are to work. The future of Scottish towns is challenging, but it is important to find solutions which have the potential for a lasting significant positive impact and not be seduced by the media circus.