A Walk Down 2 West Midland High Streets in 2023
I walk down the high street of Rufopolis and note the run down, intimidating and decaying feel of boarded up shops amidst a scene of rubbish and dirt; a legacy from last nights turn out from the soup kitchens and food banks that now dominate this high street landscape. Here you can also find the many charity shops supporting an increasingly desperate and poor population; marginalised by society and unable to secure full time employment and access to social housing. Here is a high street that has failed to secure the necessary investment in regeneration which has fuelled a vicious cycle of decline and neglect.
This high street has become a no go area in evenings and night save for the youngsters who frequent the area. Crime is a major issue and this has led to rapid desertions of this high street by people who once lived there and, in their place, we see squatters and homeless people unable to secure the tightly managed social benefits. As more people move out the vast industrial warehouse sheds move in supporting the huge expansion in internet shopping and the necessary distribution centres.
However, taking the train 5 miles north to the next town (St Ruf) we can see a totally different picture reflecting a stark difference between the winners and losers in the battle for revitalising the high street. Here under the banner of localism a consortium of business and community members were able to attract significant finance through tax incremental financing (the ability to secure up front finance based on increased business rates in the future). I see a high street transformed; indeed the street concept is a misnomer. It is now a multifunctional and dynamic public space, pedestrianized, with trees and meeting areas. Here there are local markets (Tuesdays) and giant TV screens, a portable stage for weekend performances and local cafes and gaming VR centres supporting a new consumer experience. Most significantly we can see the presence of urban farming as increasingly green space is turned over to grow local food crops. This is also evidenced on the roofs of most buildings, transforming the urban landscape into productive new spaces. This all became necessary due to climate change which has caused the failure of many crops globally and put pressures on our limited land for food production which declined dramatically under the governments policy of massive housebuilding in the period 2015-2020. .
This new and highly successful urban space has led to huge demands for mixed use developments with luxury flats, houses and new businesses paying well above market prices to secure their positions in the new prosperous town. Abutting these urban centres prosperous and protected rural fringes and ecological belts have sprung up attracting the captains of industry in their gated developments again supported by housing policy that encouraged mansions in open countryside. However, due to the failure of many high streets there is a strong private policy presence set within the gated development that now characterises the town centre; private security guards loom large ensuring only the right sort of people are allowed in. The production of identity cards has helped this process.
Set within these public spaces are new indoor shopping centres with a new shopping experience; here I can walk directly out of a train/ tram hub to minimise use of the car; after all petrol at £15 a gallon is a big hit of my disposable income. The big retail names are all there but they franchise spaces for small local businesses under new government regulations in 2020.
Internet shopping has now become the key method of shopping leading to high streets evolving into more multifunctional retail, commercial , business, recreational and leisure spaces. Retail has changed out of all proportion with a vast warehouse landscape of sheds abutting all our principal cities to fuel our insatiable appetite for web based shopping.
Alister Scott Professor of Environmental and Spatial Planning at the recently formed Greater Birmingham and Solihull University is an outspoken critic of these new developments and identifies the seeds of decline in the period from 2012 onwards.
"The problems all started in 2012/3 when planners were labelled the enemy of enterprise. They were the scapegoat for poor, ill thought out government policy driven by celebrity reviews which led to a limited number of high streets attracting investment and adapting to change. The majority were unable to win an increasingly limited amount of funding. Indeed, the principal source of EU funding dried up after we voted to leave the EU in 2014".
"In those declining areas new retail warehouses set in taking advantages of cheap land to provide huge distribution networks to support the internet based retail phenomenon. These shed landscapes were surrounded by landscapes of decline where the poor and the marginalised eked out their living in dump estates increasingly turning to crime in order to survive".
"The planning system was powerless to intervene in this new pattern of development as government policy and dictates forced planners to accept most proposals for development in order to escape the 2012-2016 recession and secure illusory economic growth". Where authorities tried to protect areas the Secretary of State took them out of local authority control; muscular localism reigned supreme".
"So on the one hand we saw some centres thrive within a new mixed development supported by strong neighbourhood plans that enriched their living and recreational experience set within the production and control of local food produce. Whilst on the other we saw increasingly large numbers of people displaced as recession and lack of employment opportunities shaped a two nation Britain".
"In my mind the problem lay with the removal of the social justice and equity component of planning in 2012. We stopped caring for those losers in development and focussed on the winners. By leaving high street regeneration to those areas submitting the best bids and applications, we created a two tier society and without a clear spatial plan we sowed the seeds of contemporary social disorder particualry in the north. The real culprit were those short sighted disciples who sacrificed their political integrity on the altar of economic growth. here we saw the capitulation of government to embrace a more socially just approach and policy towards the regeneration of our high street.
These ideas are fictional and extreme but in my view this scenario is all too possible; current drivers are at work which could lead to exactly this type of society. I do not want to see it. Do you?