Suddenly there are pots of money to transform high streets all over the place. The government has announced its long-awaited response to the Portas Review, and you can't accuse them of sitting on their thumbs.
There will be £10 million split between 100 towns for 'high street innovation', with a call to local authorities and landlords to top up the fund to encourage business start-ups and bring empty properties back into use.
There's another £1 million for the excruciatingly named Future High Street X-Fund, which is a competition to encourage towns to revive their high streets. And, in an announcement which will warm the cockles of Mary Portas's heart, there's be a National Markets Day. Half a million for business improvement districts will help develop new approaches to town centre management.
What's more, there will be more 'Portas pilots' testing out new ideas, after the initial £1 million scheme was hugely oversubscribed and criticised for its tiny budget in the face of a growing problem.
But the real announcement on the future of high streets came earlier this week with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework. In all the qualified whooping from the likes of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which saw it as a defeat for proposals originally described as a developers' charter, much of the content on town centres was overlooked.
The framework is better news for town centres than the original draft, and to that extent Mary Portas should be happy. There is a clear recognition of the important roles town centres play, and that they have a wide variety of functions as well as shopping. Development should be on previously-developed 'brownfield' sites wherever possible, which is positive; and there is a clear sequential test which states that councils "should require applications for main town centre uses to be located in town centres, then in edge of centre locations and only if suitable sites are not available should out of centre sites be considered."
This is helpful compared with the original proposals, but Mary Portas doesn't feel it goes far enough. She is right to be cautious: a decade and a half of 'town centre first' policies has not stopped people flocking to out of town centres. The horse has bolted, and taken its shopping bags with it.
The real problem is that neither today's announcement nor the NPPF address the underlying issue, which is that the high street is on a long term trajectory of change. The Genecon report, Understanding High Street Performance, [pdf] made that crystal clear. If you don't have time to read it, watch the news instead: a record number of vacant shops, and retailers continuing to struggle.
Remember too that online shopping will only exacerbate this trend, irrespective of the performance of the economy or of government. One sign to watch is what happens when leases come up for renewal (and half of all high street and shopping centre leases will expire in the next three years). There is a steady trend among big-name retailers to reduce the number of stores and focus on prime locations, and no logic that says this will change. Add in new waves of bank branch closures (Lloyds and Santander, just for starters) and you can see that change in our high streets is only going to accelerate.
So the key question to ask is what kind of change do we want, and how are we going to use the limited resources on offer to help achieve it? Last year, in a submission to the Portas Review, I brought together a range of thinkers and doers to rethink what our high streets could be like. You can download it here, or view presentations on Slideshare that sum up some of the main points.
The core of our argument was that we need to begin by thinking of the high street as the social heart of a town or suburb, not just the commercial heart. We need to reclaim town centres for community activity, learning, leisure and living. Viable retail and economic uses can then cluster around activities that people want to engage in, and in places they want to go to. Our main shopping spend went out of town years ago, and is now going online.
If the government money helps us do some radical rethinking about what our high streets are for, that's excellent. If it just tries to subsidise activities that are declining it will be wasted.
The good news is the rethinking doesn't have to be done within parameters set by government, local authorities, landlords or the retail industry. All are important but none should have a right of veto over what happens in our towns. We also need to encourage and support 'just do it' solutions, such as the work of the Empty Shops Network, the local planning of Chatsworth Road, Hackney, or the town centre greening of Incredible Edible Todmorden. And we need government, landlords, local authorities and retailers to engage with these movements, because this is where the innovation and energy is.
To encourage and share this 'just do it' approach, the people behind last year's submission to the Portas Review are putting on High Street Camp, an 'unconference' which will bring together people who are making stuff happen now, or want to learn from and share ideas with others who are doing so. The venue will be in Willesden Green, north London, and we'll have fuller details very soon. Keep Friday 25 May free if you'd like to be part of it.
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