This Town

Below is the text of a speech I gave on 3rd July to the Association of Town Centre Management. The speech delivered would have varied slightly from this text as I didn’t just stand up and read it, it just provided me with a structure and a crutch.

Town and city centres are the cradle of civilisation. People came together to trade creating markets which in turn developed villages in key locations into towns. The exchange of goods led to the exchange of ideas, to innovation, invention and modern society. The historic role of town centres was not just about trade but also about culture, learning and life itself.


When I set up the Broadmead board in Bristol the threat to our centres was the out of town development, a comparison shopping Mecca with acres of car parking and associated leisure facilities. The battle was to stake out a lively, safe and diverse town centre alternative. I remember the effort we put into making our streets clean as the first step to winning the confidence of retailers and landlords alike. From there came the redevelopments, here in Bristol, Cabot Circus.


Today our town centres face a new threat, not that the out of town centres have gone away. In some ways this threat has been cloaked by the recession.


There is now a new place where people can meet, trade goods and ideas. The internet. The internet is creating communities of interest which don’t need to be co-located. Shopping from your sofa and socialising from the living room. Goods purchased direct from retailers or via Amazon arrive on our doorsteps. We can even sell to each other via EBay turning us all back into traders.



Town centres are no longer required for their historic purpose. Perhaps we should close the conference now. Have I come here like Mark Antony “To bury town centre management, not to praise it”?


I work in the housing sector where housing management has developed into neighbourhood management and is now having to reinvent itself again. I think that our town centres need more than management,

more than a green or black bin with a gold embossed council logo on it and matching lampposts,

more than pictures covering the windows of empty shops.


Our town centres need to find new purpose and new energy. In some ways the Portas review says it all but I have some time to fill so please indulge be a little longer.



My organisation, which started as 1 then 2 then 3 then 6 council housing departments is breaking away from its housing past. When we look at the areas we serve managing the housing is no longer enough as we need to deal with our estates by more than one property at a time. Neighbourhood management also is not enough. While cutting the grass is important, to have sustainable communities we need to do more. We also have to respond to the huge demographic change which is taking place, as our society grows collectively older.


We can’t wait for others to deal with the problems on our estates, the councils are closing services and the charities are falling away as grant income becomes harder to find. We are having to move from management to leadership. Can we create new jobs and new businesses ourselves, with our customers? Can we design our homes to respond to peoples’ needs? Should we be providing new services ourselves, care, health, education, the list is potentially endless.


This is also the challenge facing town centre management.



Now we all know that town centres are constrained by historical layouts, dispersed ownership and archaic planning regulations. Indeed I am trying to open a shop in a town centre in Somerset. The planning hurdles to me doing this are only matched in their complexity by their absurdity. I need a change of use, but to do this I am required to say what I want to do in every square metre of the building, I made the mistake at one point saying that I did not know what I would do with one of the existing backrooms to the shop which now means I need to provide a detailed floor plan specifying all uses. If I was an individual entrepreneur rather than part of a corporate body I would have given up months ago.


We need to be bold with our town centres or watch them collapse into a combination of charity shops, pound shops, coffee shops, the few hardy perennials and a lot of empty unused space. Holding markets alone will not sort this out, sorry Mary. In my experience many shop based retailers hate market stall holders as they envy their freedom from overheads. We are lucky in Bristol with the quality of our market stalls but many town markets are dominated by outdoor versions of pound shops or car boot sales.


We need to find new uses for the spaces which are unlet, not keep holding out for retailers to fill the space. This can’t be achieved by town centre management. To succeed we need to convince councils to have the courage to tear up the rule book and for owners to think again about what uses will work in their properties. Town centre managers need to be able to advocate for a radical overhaul of our high streets. Perhaps we need a form of enterprise zone for centres which not allow a reduction in business rates but also a more flexible planning regime allowing changes of use between retail and other activities.


Let us go back to the local communities and customers and see what they can do. There have been a few examples of empty shops being turned over to new businesses and social enterprises to create new uses and activity. Perhaps some of our shops should be converted into housing or offices or performance spaces or artist studios. Town centres were never just about retail and we need to be far more open to a more diversity. A monoculture based largely around shopping and eating is always much easier to create out of town. The difference about the high street is that it is somewhere and can be far more than a covered retail park.


Town centres need to be where people come together when they want more from a relationship than 140 characters. We still need human contact, we still need to feel things. We can’t do everything through the internet.


This needs leadership not management (well maybe management as well). It needs the authority to change the mindset of planners, owners, licensing. It needs the credibility to involve a wide range of partners and local communities. I think you are exceptionally well placed to do this.


So I say


The Association of Town Centre Management is Dead


Long live


The Association of Town Centre Leadership




As I await the result of the Labour ballot for elected Mayor, hoping they select a candidate I can support my thoughts turn to the current favourite and what to do with my second vote.

George Ferguson is a colourful character in an arena full of dour people. He oozes enthusiasm and energy. I have known George for over 20 years now and have often found myself on the same side of an argument as him. Recently we have been shoulder to shoulder on the stump arguing both for electoral reform and an elected mayor. We have even danced together at the opening of the Tobacco factory in Raleigh road, where I was then a resident.

So why am I so uneasy about rallying behind the bookies favourite for mayor? He has recently suggested that it is all about party politics. George has only resigned his membership of the Liberal Democrats after the referendum result was in. However it isn’t that, this is a job which is bigger than parties and as failed candidates for Bristol West we should probably set up a society.

My concern is that George seems to have a blind spot. Hopefully one he can address before we go to the polls. In some ways this blog is a plea for him to address this issue before votes have to be cast in November. George is a great enthusiast for Bristol, he is often right about issues on design and planning, but he doesn’t seem to be able to separate this from an enthusiasm for himself.

In the late 1990s one of the biggest issues in Bristol was the development of Canon’s Marsh, now Harbourside. George was part of one of the losing teams in a bid to develop the site, I seem to remember it was called something like little Venice because it including an extra dock for a ship near Lloyds arena. Once the winning bid was announced George joined the campaign to defeat it. He was successful and then became part of the team for the subsequent scheme which got planning permission.

George is a strong advocate, quite rightly, for mixed use developments, dare I use the phrase – ‘with active ground floor uses’.  When a terrible, sub urban housing development was proposed for the inner city Elizabeth Shaw chocolate factory in Greenbank was proposed George was soon advising and supporting the campaign against it. Planning permission was refused and then lo and behold George was the architect for the developer of a new scheme. Although the scheme has been criticised by some I thought it was an attractive mixed use which would be a real boost to the area (although I was concerned by the lack of affordable housing). George has said on twitter that he was not going to benefit financially from the scheme but then did not answer any questions about whether his architectural service was free or fee. He has also branded questions relating to his interests as ‘gutter politics’ rather than addressing them.

We can see George also at the forefront of opposing the redevelopment of Ashton Gate, suggesting a mixed use scheme instead (with his firm as the architects?) and a similar position relating to the plans to redevelop the old South Bristol College site.

My concern is that George is unable to separate his passion for Bristol from his commercial interests. He has said publicly that he will resign his membership from the Society of Merchant Venturers and other memberships which might create a suggestion of a conflict of interest. For me it’s not what he is a member of but his apparent inability to see that he business model (as the Clash would say “Turning rebellion into money”) suggests that he has a blind spot in terms of such conflicts. He has so far made no clear statements (which I have seen) in relation to his business interests in the City. The potential power of the Mayor makes this a critical issue and one which I hope and I’m sure George can clear up before the vote.

Death is a Star

The BBC have been pumping out a lot of stories about death this week, think it might be national dying week or something.

It started with the annual poll of death related issues from the “Dying Matters Coalition” published by Comres


71% of the population think we feel uncomfortable talking about death. I can’t help feeling that some of this is down to some of the ridiculous theories of death propogated by some religions. I heard someone on thought for today on Radio 4 saying that we don’t really know what happens when we die. Of course we do – our concious self ceases to exist and our physical self decays or is incinerated.

Death is an end of us as an entity although we remain as a memory in the minds of people who knew us (until they die) and also as, for and for an increasing number of us, a redundant page on facebook.

Obviously the idea of ceasing to be is a frightening one and talking about it a bit morbid. All that we are and have been will be no more. However death can also be a release, the end of the struggle which is life and for many when the time comes it can also mean the end of pain. It is true that we find these thoughts difficult to express and the acceptance of death, despite its inevitability, seems like defeatism.

However I see life and conciousness as a marvel. We are made of the same stuff as the mud, stone and rivers. A collection of atoms, forming molecules, molecules forming cells and cells cooperating as living beings. Death will bring our personal end but our components (I know this sounds a cold, technocratic phrase) become part of the life around us. We are not reborn but we reform to be part of existence. We re-enter the rocks, the air, the waterways, we become part of everything which is this planet. Our lost ones are in the trees, the fields and the hills. Most things we see have been a part of previous life and will continue to be part of future life.  This is not mysticism or religion, this is science and for me there is little more full of wonder than scientific truth coupled with our ability to understand it.

Our life may be fleeting and ultimately without meaning but it is still wondrous and awe inspiring.


Yeah Yeah Yeah

I’m voting for an elected Mayor for Bristol because
1) We need someone with the democratic legitimacy to speak for the whole city not just one political party
2) We should have someone who can be selected by the whole city not just a few councillors acting in secret with vested interests in the result
3) We should have a system where the most talented people in the City can seek to be the leader of the city not just drawn from people who can afford to be councillors
4) The mayoral system is already seeing powers moving from national to local government, the more city mayors we have the stronger voice there is for this
5) We need someone who draws votes from all of the city and doesn’t ignore areas where their party can’t win wards
6) Bristol council is in a rut it needs shaking up

Sweet Charity

The Government have come under fire for seeking to reduce tax allowances for donations to charity.

Having run two charities and as someone who opposes this outrageous and damaging Government you might expect me join the baying crowd. But I’m not so sure. Firstly we have the millionaire philanthropists complaining that this will make them donate less. So what they are saying is that they don’t really make donations out of “a love of humanity” (the meaning of philanthropy) but to reduce their tax bill.  The vast majority donors don’t know about tax reliefs or indeed claim them.

The second issue which concerns me is that ‘charity’ is seen as a good thing, however not all charities are equal. Yes they include many fantastic organisations but also Eton College and other private schools.  Ironically my donating to Eton you can reduce the amount you pay for state schools, charitable?

Charities have been used to channel funds to political parties and some have been specifically set up to hide money from the taxman (Private Eye is good enough a source for me).  The Charity Commission which oversees the sector has not been untouched by the cuts.

Philanthropy has great traditions and supports some great work but should it really be a mechanism for avoiding the taxes which pay for health, education and other social services/

A background report on charitable giving can be found here


Whatever Happened to?

It is with more of a sense of relief and liberation than of sadness that I have come to realise that I won’t be seeking any elected office in the foreseeable future.

The all women shortlist rules me out of standing in Bristol West again and my partner’s job rules me out of standing for Bristol’s elected mayor (and for council as a councillor). I doubt any other opportunities will show themselves over the next 5-10 years.

In some ways I am not suited to modern politics where ‘the line’ and ‘loyalty’ are valued far more by the party hierarchy than principle and belief.  The loss of ideology to managerialism is a disappointing but understandable development as parties follow rather than lead the electorate. As a candidate in Bristol West I was frequently fielding calls from party staff asking me to remove  statements of political expression from my blog or facebook page.

Not only do I think I’m not cut out for this form of modern politics I also feel that political activism brings out some of my worst traits, grumpiness and partisan aggressive argumentativeness are not attractive (and that’s just with some of my own party). I loved the engagement with communities and individuals but and I am a bit of a loner and not good at the joining of gangs which politics requires. I also lack that drive to become an MP which blots out all else which I see in many of those who are successful.

Added to this although I enjoy political involvement, debate and trying to make a positive change I currently feel I can do this more successfully and effectively through my work.

One of my bosses once said to me that my problem was I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a professional or a political career and that trying to ride two horses meant that I was not truly successful in either. For the time being I think I will concentrate on my professional work.

During the days of the poll tax, the slogan of protesters was “Can’t pay, won’t pay”.

The poll tax (along with Europe) finally did for Margaret Thatcher. Demonstrations and riots across the country, some in otherwise sleepy market towns, made the tax untenable.

A different kind of demonstration has overturned the 50% tax on income over £150,000 per annum. That protest could probably be summed up as “Can pay, won’t pay”.  The wealthy just find ways to move their money and assets beyond the reach of the tax collectors. The response from the Government is to say, the rich are not paying this tax at the level we would expect so we are going to drop it. Although the Chancellor used words to attack tax dodgers, he used actions to reward them.

Can you imagine another area of public expenditure where if people refused to pay they were just had the bill removed. If I refused to pay my council tax would the Chancellor abolish the tax, of course not. I would end up in the courts and ultimately in prison.

Once again we see that the normal rules of society don’t apply to the wealthy.


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