Friday, 17 November 2017

Smaller then you might imagine

A couple of years ago I wrote about the hazards and pitfalls of having Christmas Light switch-on events.  Well it's that time again, and all across North Norfolk, lights are being installed, checked and day by day, switched on - even though Christmas isn't quite just round the corner.

When its cold, crisp and bright as it is today, it doesn't seem that strange, but on mild days with leaves still on the trees it does seem just a little early. For most of our neighbours, thinking particularly of Wells and Holt, the organisation and installation is, I think, if not in the hands of the local Town Council very much supported by them. Here things are a bit different; Burnham is smaller than you might imagine - we are not a town but just a slightly larger than average village. We have a Parish Council but the traditional Christmas Lights have always been a matter for the Traders Association, indeed I believe this is where the origins of that body can be found.

Each year in the time we have been here there has been a question of costs and management. There are a surprising number of businesses here but as time has gone past, an increasing number are staffed by those who live elsewhere and the original direct connections and community links have diminished. Fortunately largely through the efforts of a very few over the last couple of the years, some of the installation costs are now more manageable, but as somebody noted this week "they don't switch themselves on" and the Christmas trees themselves need to be funded, purchased and installed.

The Parish Council are of course involved but the fact remains that without the time and effort expended by one or two individuals sorting every thing out, Burnham's lights simply wouldn't happen and another little bit of community life would fade away.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Role reversal

In a previous world I was an urban designer. I know and I apologise, although actually some of what we worked on was good. Some of it was however too radical for conservative clients, both public and private.

Nearly forty years later, the world has now moved on. The idea of retail parks in edge of or out of town locations - closely followed by new business centres alongside - and then the explosion in online shopping, means town centre shopping is now more or less irrelevant. Niche destinations remain viable either because the destination is attractive in itself or because they offer small specialist and unique services. 

The small town 'shopping centre' built in the 60's and 70's has by and large had its day. Nobody wants them and fewer and fewer go there. All across the country there are towns and cities desperately trying to reverse the tide.  Funding and re-branding ain't going to fix this. As one of my colleagues memorably advised one of the regeneration agencies we were working for way back then, "it's like a dog chasing a motorcycle - it wouldn't know what to do with it if it caught it". History suggests there is some truth in this - sadly the country is littered with regeneration schemes that didn't actually fail but just spluttered and subsided back from whence they came.

The answer is to change the way we see these unloved towns. Nobody wants to shop there so we need to reverse things - live there. Convert the unloved shops to residential and community use, maybe put care facilities in the centre so those in need don't depend so much on others to take them there. It's worth remembering this is not rocket science; historically it was done the other way round with housing being displaced for retail. 

Towns are increasingly like Polo mints - with a hole in the middle. Instead of building further and further out making a bigger and bigger hole we need to abandon our perception of 'town centres'. In many cases they already simply don't exist. We need human scale development to live in at the centre with the other stuff round the edge. The latter part has already happened but so far we've failed to act on the consequences of this.