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What Next for Our High Streets?

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So the 'golden tickets' have been awarded to a dozen successful Portas Pilots to revitalise their high streets, with the promise of another 15 to come. Meanwhile more than 350 towns and suburbs who were hoping to win this mini-lottery will need to decide what to do with the energy and enthusiasm that went into their applications.

A few may not get over their disappointment, and will wither away. The signs are that most will not be put off and will find ways of getting on with their plans anyway. And, because the money on offer is so self-evidently a drop in the ocean, it has got many people thinking creatively about what they can get on and do with their own resources.

This is vital. The most important assets in any place, including your local high street, are the people who identify with it - who see it as theirs, because they use it, trade in it, own part of it or provide a service in it.

Last Friday I helped organise the UK's first High Street Camp at the Library Lab in northwest London, an informal conference for anyone and everyone who cares about the future of our town centres. People from all over the UK - from Stirling to Stepney, Weston-super-Mare to Walsall - turned up to share ideas and learn how they could rethink the place that many still see as the heart of their community.

It was a place for having conversations and making connections, not for being lectured to. And connections and conversations happened, with a bit of help from some great people who volunteered to run workshops about everything from the state of the streets to local food, from creating spaces for young people to working with planners.

I think there are three things we can draw from the buzz and excitement of High Street Camp. The first was captured by Mary Portas, who dropped in at lunchtime and had a chance to look at the Queen's Parade pop-up shops which are giving new businesses a chance to try out their ideas. Social capital, she said, creates economic capital. In other words, wealth is created by making connections and building trust and friendship. I would add that much of the inequality we see is down to unequal connections: power and wealth is hoarded by those who already have it. The more connected society can be, the more equal it begins to become.

The second was from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, who helped us to reflect on the day's events at the end of the afternoon. He provided a helpful foil to Mary Portas's get-up-and-go, encouraging participants to think and research before rushing ahead with apparently good ideas, and putting in a good word for the oft-maligned bureaucrats whose job is to balance competing interests. His call to 'hug a planner' may not be a headline-grabber but was an important reminder of the value of public servants. They can be key allies in achieving progress.

The third point is about the scale and speed of change, which we are only just starting to get to grips with. Many people start thinking about planning or community action because they see the impending loss of something they value, rather than because they have a vision for creating something new. For many high streets, it may be too late to prevent the loss, so creating the new becomes more urgent.

I think we are only just beginning to get to grips with the scale of the challenge as the nature of retail changes and global economic storms break, but the possibilities are as great as the problems. This belief that we have a chance to create places that add value to their local communities, rather than just extracting value from them, was at the heart of the '21st century agora' paper the High Street Camp organisers submitted to the Portas Review. It needs to be at the centre of our thinking as we consider the future.

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