Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
‘Gentrification’ becomes a reality when the local High Street is revived by attracting independent retailers and restaurateurs. When estate agents and chain operators start to rub shoulders with the artisan bakers and butchers you know an area has ‘arrived’. However, it is the residents who make this happen, those who take a risk by moving into run down areas and pay for the skips to revitalise a neglected property in which to raise a family.
Most towns and cities can learn from London, where visionary councils (Wandsworth was one of the first) encouraged these incomers, raising school standards, and keeping council tax at a realistic level, but providing excellent services. They understood that aspirational homeowners (the JAMs of a decade or so ago) would make a valuable contribution to the local economy. They recognised that good housing alongside High Streets supports entrepreneurs and small businesses; Dickens Yard in Ealing Broadway is another recent example of the stimulus housing provides to create thriving friendly neighbourhoods where people watch out for each other.
GPs and dentists are enabled to take advantage of these changes, sharing facilities, alongside pharmacies, and even opticians, to reduce operational costs, and making them more easily accessible for working people, whilst also reducing demand in A&E.
But we still see too many brownfield sites in town centres, used as temporary car parks and car washes, or simply left barren and overgrown, but with huge potential to meet demand from people of all ages, wanting to be part of a vibrant community with well designed public spaces, tree-planting, good street lighting, restaurants, wine bars and individual shops which not only create a buzz but increase personal safety with lots of activity, especially in the evening.
Yet this is seemingly a challenge for too many councils stuck in a timewarp, which still think that housing and retail should be separate, instead of integrated as they are across much of the Continent. This now means that, due to a lack of footfall, banks are contributing to the decline of the High Street, by closing branches and leaving 1500 bankless communities, inevitably impacting on other businesses. Managing one’s money is very personal, so being able to have face to face contact with banking advisers is important to most of us; banks add to the diversity essential to local prosperity, an incentive to visit the town centre, encouraging us to do a bit of shopping nearby, support the local market, or to pop into a cafe.
Online banking is not the solution. Given the recent debacle with Tesco Bank, people are more nervous than ever about the sophisticated hackers which seem able to defy the best (albeit questionable) security. And, in many areas, broadband is either so slow or unavailable that it would be impossible in any event.
Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and Lloyds have pledged not to close if they are the ‘last man standing’ in an area, although this could be described as an empty promise, since recent further closures continue to leave small towns without banking services. HSBC will, by the end of this year, have closed a further 220 branches, citing reduced footfall. This policy not only deprives domestic customers of banking facilities, but also local businesses, which have to travel ever further in order to deposit cheques and cash, leaving them more vulnerable to crime.
However, there is some hope. The Post Office Chief Executive recently announced a reversal of previous closures policy, potentially opening another 2,000 branches, including some mobiles to serve remote communities (is this an opportunity to partner with public Library Services?)
It is also transferring some of the 300 directly-managed Crown Post Offices into WH Smith, and concessions with the Co-op, McColls and Spar, making them more accessible and visible. With 17 million customers a week, the chain already offers frontline banking services for 95 per cent of current accounts on behalf of the banks, although citing difficulties in standardising banking services for a lack of further progress in reaching agreement on a ‘framework deal and financials’. Completing these negotiations will no doubt trigger further bank closures unless customers vote with their feet and support whichever decides to stay put and – just as pubs have had to do to survive – reinvent themselves to meet local demand.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done, and local politicians, together with Local Enterprise Partnerships, could be taking the lead. For example, revive the idea of Community Banking Services, with the big banks sharing the running costs – an expansion of the Post Office scheme, perhaps, or utilising redundant BHS stores, with councils relocating services alongside. Councillors could hold surgeries, with a daily rota, including cabinet members, ensuring there is always a councillor on duty to talk to residents. When we are faced with so many people feeling excluded, this would enable them to engage and communicate with those who represent them.
Seating in public areas and within stores needs to be reinstated, according to a campaign group called Standing up 4 Sitting Down, which claims that High Streets are losing about £3.8billion by not being user-friendly for older shoppers and the disabled, who would like somewhere to sit, enabling them to catch their breath and do a bit of people watching. And I recently heard of a special bench being installed in a High Street where people feeling lonely or depressed could sit; someone would always stop to see how they could help. What a lovely idea.
It’s clear that radical new thinking is still needed to salvage the High Street, which requires councils, landowners and businesses, including banks, to take the long view with an open mind, learning from what is working elsewhere and adapting it to the local environment by speeding up decision-making.