How to Save our Town Centres
At first glance the absence of plans, graphics or visualisations does not suggest this as a book for urban designers. However, director of think tank Urban Pollinators, Julian Dobson covers a lot of ground and is completely focused on the value of town centres as places, and what works or does not.
The first part of the book examines where town centres are today, their cultural and social importance, the workings of the market, and independent retailing; the second focuses on what town centres could be like and the final chapters deal with key issues such as land ownership, finance and the idea of town centres as ‘commons’.
The background is familiar: the malaise of property economics, out-of-town centres the impacts of online shopping, etc., all undermine town centres. The damage brought by Merry Hill for instance, borne out of an early 1980s Enterprise Zone; shopping malls and the unhealthy dominance of the grocery sector; the online giants such as Amazon siphoning off income to tax havens, avoiding property taxes, competing unfairly and making no investment in physical (town) infrastructure. City centre retail-led regeneration is critiqued as well for concentrating and polarising: Liverpool One for instance is ‘a One Billion Pound Wealth Distribution Scheme’.
Churches, libraries, health providers, education classes, law firms have been leaving town centres. They and council services, and the use of assets can be vital to the health of town centres. The book promotes the widest possible choice of uses, ‘meanwhile’ uses, residential, walking and lingering and initiatives to revitalise public space.
More fundamentally, a system of property law based on a ‘duty of stewardship’ is advocated. The 2011 Right to Reclaim Land enables groups and individuals to order disposal of public land, but a more radical extension needs to apply to private property too on the principle that neglected land should be made available to the community. Other major ideas proposed are to overhaul current property taxation in favour of a Land Value Tax and a Community Investment Act to channel a proportion of banks’ profits into community development.
Planning needs to be agile, frameworks must blend the visionary and spontaneous. Town teams of conservators, guided by a principle of stewardship, should consider the benefits for a place over the long term. The book provides a promising agenda for town centres which works at a number of levels. Can anyone make it happen?