I've recently been asked to join a new advisory group which is aimed at helping the Labour Shadow Business and Communities teams to understand the best ways to support our high streets. As part of the group, I'll be working with the former CEO of Wickes and Iceland, Bill Grimsey to look at successful examples of high street rejuvenation and entrepreneurship across the country, and looking at how new ideas like pop-up shops, start-up space and local entrepreneurial networks can be encouraged in high streets around the country.
I've been asked to take part in this group because of my role as Chief Executive of Camden's Business Improvement District (or BID). Camden Town Unlimited was set up by the business community to improve Camden Town as a place to work, live and visit, and it's a privilege to work with some of the most creative and entrepreneurial firms in London. We initiate and deliver projects that help to improve Camden Town as a business location, like our pop up shops network, where we work with local landlords to make sure of empty retail spaces and promote some of the creative talent that is at the heart of Camden. Since they were set up, our pop up shops have hosted everything from graduate fashion brands, art collectives and environmental brands.
We're lucky in Camden, there's no denying that. Our high street, our markets and our shops thrive because of the very special creative atmosphere that is unique to Camden, and has been part of the town's culture for many a decade. Some of the greatest artists of the last 100 years have made their homes in Camden - from Dylan Thomas to Amy Winehouse. It's a thriving, creative, inspiring place, and one where our help as a business improvement district has allowed us to harness this appeal and create opportunities for young businesspeople and entrepreneurs to start up and succeed.
But it's at risk. HS2 Ltd wants to plough through the centre of Camden, taking over the bridges and shutting down businesses for years to create a link with the old high speed railway to Europe. On paper, building this line means road closures, bridge widening, transport disruptions. In practice, it could mean the end of Camden as we know it.
It's Camden's unique creativity that makes it so special. It's the vibrant markets, the old punks hanging out by the Electric Ballroom, the young, keen, entrepreneurs manning market stalls and pop-up shops. But shutting down a market stall for a month isn't like closing a Starbucks for a few weeks. These people are small traders who need a reliable income to make their business viable. The noise, disruption and chaos caused by the proposed HS2 link could threaten or even destroy their entire business, and with them the cultural heart of Camden Town.
We're not NIMBYs in Camden. I believe in progress, I believe in creativity - hell, I believe in HS2 - but there is a better way of doing this that will help to save one of the most unique high streets in the country, and preserve a creative, independent, flourishing Camden Town. And it's a pretty simple one. Build the link underground. That's all we ask. After the billions that are being spent on this railway line, a little extra cash (and it's only a tiny fraction of the overall cost) won't make a big difference to the budget but it could make all the difference when it comes to preserving our community. Particularly as the cost of disruption would be four times the cost of doing it right. So I will continue to fight for the businesses in Camden, our creative industries and our cultural heritage by asking the Government and HS2 to listen to us when we say that Camden is precious and it's worth saving.
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