Saturday, August 27, 2011

A town like Maidenhead

I enjoyed the recent BBC series Town, presented by Nicholas Crane and including Ludlow, Perth, Scarborough and Totnes. You can catch the final two episodes on iPlayer if you’re quick. Crane made a persuasive case for the quality of life in towns and gave some great examples of their resilience in the face of economic and social change.

There was one quite understandable flaw, however. His four town were all, in some way, a success. They were places you’d think seriously about living in – even a city girl like I. But what about towns that are struggling? I can see why no local council or chamber of commerce would allow access on the basis of being Loser Town. However, a wander around my home town of Maidenhead last week provided the missing link.

Maidenhead is a Berkshire town with a population of 78,000, located between Slough and Reading. It has suffered from the shopping and other facilities available in those two towns, from out of town supermarkets, and from the niche shopping and amenities offered in surrounding affluent villages such as Cookham, Taplow and Bray.

What’s left is dire. Looking around, it was clear that most people were there due to lack of choice - because they either couldn’t afford a car (young people, including mothers) or didn’t want to drive long distances (old people). There were lots of empty shops, along with a poor range of goods and very little middle market choice. Atrocious service in Boots, where I was told to go to John Lewis for a brand they didn’t stock. Now, that’s fair enough if there had been a branch around the corner, but the nearest is in Reading.

There are two initiatives that could help to drag the town out of its stagnation. Kings Triangle is a proposed mixed use development which continues to shift the town’s centre of gravity towards the station, in my view correctly in order to encourage use of public transport. But although including office and residential space, as well as a public square, it follows the conventional path of trying to encourage more consumption. It may work, because it will provide a mix of large and small retail units which may diversify the retail offer and persuade more time-poor people to return to local shopping, but it very much depends on attracting the major chain stores to the town. The plans ignore the dreadful local bus services, which need to be vastly improved – and subsidised – in order to get people out of their cars.

Maidenhead also has a Transition Town group. The web site includes an interesting series of events, and hopefully the people involved can help to promote a more sustainable approach to development. However, the problem with these kind of groups is that they tend to remain small and without real influence.

But the real issue is the bigger picture: are we seeing the beginning of changes that could be very beneficial for towns like Maidenhead? Higher fuel costs and decreasing consumption due to the economic situation could lead to the end of shopping as a leisure activity. If people  returned to local retailers for essentials and followed the ‘buy less, buy well’ rule for the rest, then towns could benefit. And if more time is spent in a town, it becomes easier for it to develop a better community focus, reflecting the diversity of its citizens’ interests, and a stronger identity. All this helps with the area becoming a stronger economic hub as well.

Nicholas Crane gave us fascinating accounts of four towns that are further forward in this process, but others can follow.


LeftAtTheCross said...

Interesting piece there. Perhaps there is simply too much emphasis on allocation of urban space for commercial purposes. Simply put there's not enough business to go around the ever increasing number of high street shops, retail parks, town centres etc. It goes to the heart of the question of what is the function of local government, and the ever shrinking public space. Is the only function of a town to act as a location for market exchange (business)? Should there in fact be a far smaller allocation of urban space to commercial interests, and a higher allocation to public spaces and the commons? At the other end of the scale, if you've visited a town in what was the Eastern Bloc and noted the lack if commercial outlets, the limited number of shops and cafes etc., but plenty of open spaces, playgrounds, sports grounds, parks, community facilities etc, and usually also factories. Perhaps somewhere closer to that end of the spectrum lies a sustainable economic model for urban centres, one which provides more services to it's inhabitants than shopping.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - very interesting point. I haven't visited ex-Eastern Bloc countries as yet although I have to go to Berlin next April for the first time, where I'll bear your ocmment in mind.

I agree with you that a reduction in consumption-led activity in towns will be more sustainable, but how will it be paid for? I think local government needs to lead creatively and think about sponsorship, targeted funding, Business Improvement Districts and so on. I was in Pittsburgh earlier this year, where much of their regeneration is funded by charitable foundations.

There's also the possibility of citizens doing it for themselves, of course, although I still think the local state has to provide the framework and try to ensure there is no exploitation, or hijacking of public resrouces for the use of more priviledged groups. I am suspicious of the Big Society agenda whilst obviously being in support of an active and diverse civil society - difficult balance.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Just back from a 2 week house swap to (east) Berlin ourselves, it was an inspiration in many ways, though as a bustling capital of one of the world's most successful capitalist economies it's not really what I was referring to above.

As to your question of how to pay for the reduction in consumption led activity, I'm not sure I understand what you're asking? Do you mean the regeneration which you mention in relation to Pittsburgh? I'd tend to argue that large-scale infrastructure projects should be undertaken by the central state, in that there's an element of social engineering involved in the same way that the slum clearances of the past and the garden cities weren't isolated local projects, they were ideological and driven top-down by the state.

Your point about localism is valid. To me, localism isn't good or bad per se, it has pros and cons, and is motivated ideologically by right or left agendas. Like everything else, it exists as a set of political choices. If it is hijacked by the elite then one set of outcomes will, likewise if it forms a basis for a widespread engagement by local grassroots groups then a different set of outcomes will result.

Jenny Muir said...

Take your point about East Berlin - still looking forward to seeing it though.

My point about funding was twofold, I suppose. There's the capital element, where the issue is should it be funded by the state (wholly or partly) or by the private sector. I'd agree with you that big infrastructure projects shodul be state-funded, however at the current time the 'wholly or partly' debate is really important. PFI is now less attractive for the private sector so any further PFI deals are likely to be repaid over a shorter period than 30 years and also will cost even more. I was also thinking about Tax Increment Financing, which is big in the USA and is catching on in Scotland. Councils borrow for new infrastructure against a future revenue stream from assumed increased business rates. I thought it sounded well dodgy, but it's quite popular in Pennsylvania although less so in Massachussets, the other state I visited.

But more difficult is revenue funding to maintain infrastructure and public spaces. It can be funded via council tax/ rates, business rates and an extra levy in Business Improvement Districts, however the appearance of the public realm in towns is so important and often falls short.

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