When Mary Portas produced her report for the UK Government on high streets, Bill Grimsey was quick to posit an alternative and to focus on leadership and technology for places. His report and its follow-up a few years later have become important contributors to the discussion of the need for change in towns.
In his follow-up report he made a number of references to Scotland and its Town Centre Action Plan, the role of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and its partners and broadly pointed to the need for similar actions elsewhere in the UK.
His reports, agitation around towns and retail change and his willingness and availability to debate the issues has seen Bill Grimsey have a sustained influence on the discussion.
So it was no surprise that he (and his team) have produced a ‘Covid supplement for town centres’. Covid is a disruptive event and an accelerant to the changes already underway. Thus, in this supplement Grimsey asks if we have too many streets, what a post-Covid town looks like, how we empower local communities, what should replace rates, how we build green and amenity space into towns and fundamentally who are towns for?
These are good questions. His responses to them are focused around three key ideas – location, leadership and fewer cars, more green space – and 27 recommendations under 7 headings – power to communities, leadership, taxation, post retail planning, property, planning and transport.
As in the previous reports, there are interesting ideas and thoughts in this supplement and the underlying sentiment and realities are important. There are numerous small examples of where change has had a positive impact. There is a danger though that it is a bit of a wish list and the ‘how’ question is left too unresolved, despite these examples. The examples help in answering how, but beg the question over the barriers to doing this, locally and more generally. As Neil McInroy said in a different discussion about place and communities, many of the examples we cite exist “despite the current system” and not because of it. We need to understand what more do we must do and how can we refocus and rebalance our entire system to meet economic and social needs. This is a bigger moment than we have ever seen.
So my question is whether “build back better” is likely to produce the same solutions at the same pace as before and return us to where we were pre-covid? Would it be better to be bolder and to think about more than the solution to high streets and retail and about how we want to be different and changed by the pandemic, and not simply survive it? Bill Grimsey’s report has components of this, and is a starting point for more systemic change.
We need to grasp the moment and work out how to do what we must do, at pace. The risk otherwise is that our responses to the pandemic become inhibitors to the changes we need and not the catalysts for change required.