THE BLOG

Forget Peppa Pig - It's Time to Take the Future of High Streets Seriously

15/03/2013 13:24 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

First there was Peppa Pig. Then there was Santa. Both were held up to ridicule in the pages of the Independent and elsewhere as ludicrous examples of waste and stupidity.

What Peppa and Santa had in common, apart from their excited following of small children, was their deployment as shock troops in the great battle to save the high street. First we take Manhattan, then we take... Bexleyheath? Bolton? Bognor Regis?

Paul Turner-Mitchell, one of the most vocal champions of Britain's independent retailers, is the detective behind a barrage of freedom of information requests that have revealed just how much - or little - of the money announced last year to revive our high streets is being spent, and what on.

First there were the Portas Pilot towns, with around £100,000 each to test the recommendations of the Portas Review. Croydon, for example, had spent only £4,950, while Stockport had spent £25,800 from a total fund of nearly half a million.

Now it's been revealed that the £10m 'high street innovation fund' has gone, or not gone, the same way. This fund was a pot of money originally intended to help high streets hit by the 2011 riots and hurriedly reallocated to the local authorities with the highest commercial property vacancy rates, which don't necessarily match the high streets with the greatest number of empty shops.

Birmingham, Bolton and Westminster councils hadn't spent a penny of their funds by 31 January. North Tyneside paid for Santa, Hull spent £5,563 on a street nativity play, and Vale of White Horse council spent £1,000 on reindeer.

Paul Turner-Mitchell's conclusion is that councils are fiddling while Rome burns. He believes they can't be trusted to deal with the problem of declining high streets, and that the government has betrayed independent retailers - in particular by refusing to review the business rating system, which charges Amazon £44 per square metre for a warehouse outside Doncaster, but costs a small shopkeeper in Rochdale £1,000 per square metre.

There's evidence, and then there are the conclusions you draw from the evidence. Whether the money was spent wisely or not is likely to differ widely from place to place. In Bristol, for example, activist Keren Suchecki has mounted a fierce defence of her city's Portas Pilot.

This week the London Assembly published its own report on empty shops in the capital. There was no Peppa Pig or Santa involved, so it didn't make many headlines. But it made important points about the complexity and variety of issues affecting local high streets, from internet retailing to absentee landlords.

Like Paul Turner-Mitchell, the Assembly agreed urgent action was needed to protect small high street traders. Its own suggestions included amending planning laws to curb the proliferation of betting shops and payday lenders; creating a London-wide register of the owners of empty shops; extending business rate relief to small businesses; and creating a new kind of compulsory purchase order, allowing councils and business improvement districts to take out compulsory medium-term leases of empty properties rather than having to buy the property outright.

These suggestions are important and constructive. Whether they will stop the decline of the high street is questionable, but they may well give some a stay of execution.

What's missing in much of the debate, though, is any effective combination of long-term thinking with emergency action. The real challenge is not to keep particular shopkeepers in business - welcome though that might be - but to create a future for high streets that is viable in the 21st century. And that will take time.

On Monday I was at an event with people who are doing this kind of long term thinking about how to prevent value and resources leaking from local communities. One option some are exploring is the creation of 'community currencies' like the Brixton and Bristol Pounds: money that 'sticks' within a defined catchment, promoting local trade and enterprise.

Such ideas tend to be dismissed as outlandish or unworkable, but there are systems that have worked well over many years. The WIR Bank in Switzerland operates a parallel currency that helps 60,000 small and medium-sized businesses. On a smaller scale, the Chiemgauer in Germany helps more than 3,000 members. In Bristol, 500 shops are already accepting the Bristol Pound.

These experiments, unlike some of the sticking-plaster approaches adopted by some local authorities or business groups, seek to create long term local value. But they take time. It can take several years to get a community currency from drawing board to the shop till.

What neither the government and local councils nor their critics have tended to recognise is that it has taken 30 years and more for the traditional British high street to reach crisis point; high streets will not be rescued in weeks or months.

Long term thinking doesn't happen without a shared vision and values. The missing piece of the jigsaw isn't an ambulance for ailing businesses but community development: a process that brings everyone with a stake in the future of the place together, assesses what they need and can offer, and seeks to match unmet needs with unused resources. It's about working out what can be done locally, and identifying the gaps where others - local government, national politicians or the property industry, for example - need to take action.

Business people tend to like action but have little patience with the idea of community. They favour transaction over interaction: do the deal and move on. Our high streets are the victims of that short-term, grab-it-while-you-can approach. If our towns are going to have a future, it rests not on how quickly they can spend financial capital from the government but how strongly they can build social capital on their streets.