From ‘me towns’ to ‘we towns’

Book review: How to save our town centres: A radical agenda for the future of high streets

By Julian Dobson, Policy Press, 2015

Review by Tony Baldwinson

Empty shops. Charity shops. Betting shops. The death and decay of our high streets has been troubling us for at least seven years. Longer, if you live in areas like the coalfield villages in the Welsh valleys and others north of Watford. Julian Dobson has written a great book here on what has gone wrong and, more importantly, what can we now do to rejuvenate our town centres. This is long overdue, and vital to our quality of living.

His experience and knowledge shine through in this clearly and carefully written book. For me, anyone can catch my attention when they acknowledge Jane Jacobs and her thinking on street design, and Julian doesn’t just quote her, he understands her. And though he is very measured in his writing, you do get an occasional glimpse behind the curtain. Folk working for firms of high street lawyers might want a stiff drink before reading pages ten and eleven. And a similar caution later for university library manager friends in Sheffield.

Julian covers the ground thoroughly, reminding us of the pioneers and initiatives which still hold lessons for the future. He rightly cautions us against trying to make our high streets into unsustainable copies of a nostalgic past. Perhaps here his biggest contribution to our understanding how our bad our high streets have become is his forensic analysis of the British commercial property professions. There is a lot of fresh work here, and with plenty of research leads for others to usefully explore. The professional tension between risk aversion and promoting bubble economics is laid bare.

Things only seem impossible until someone

makes them happen. Cities were in decline not long ago.

He concludes this fine book with a section on what can be done today to improve our high streets. These suggestions are very practical and pragmatic. Julian resists a simple solution, whether it would be a new law or a new technical fix. So there should be no excuses for waiting for someone or something else – anyone concerned with their high street can start straight away with these improvement ideas. It is a collective enterprise, going as he says from ‘me towns’ to ‘we towns’.

I really hope that there is a second edition of this book, and soon. It would have another chapter— on how it all started getting better. Julian would be too modest to add his influence within such a chapter, but we would know.

And if I can speculate for a moment. Things only seem impossible until someone makes them happen. Cities were in decline not long ago. But consider people like Tony Wilson and Tom Bloxham. Tom was a young man starting out in business who saw that, in his own words, old buildings were cheaper to buy per square foot than carpet. Now thousands of property companies have followed the lead of pioneers in urban regeneration such as Urban Splash. It set a new normal. And if Tom rewired urban property, Tony rewired the urban brain for a new generation. Many, many helped – like a town centre, a city is a collective enterprise – but someone had to open the door.

Julian rightly describes how some areas have taken these changes to an unsustainable level, often with a mistaken belief that retail-led regeneration will solve every town centre problem. ‘Boom goggles’ he calls them. Or ‘cargo cults’, as anthropologists would describe them.

But I quietly suspect that someone, probably young, possibly with a background in video blogging, skateboarding and graphic books, even now is sitting with her mate in some greasy spoon cafe in Collyhurst and saying, ‘those empty shops and stuff, you know what…’

And so a door opens on our next new normal.


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