Wednesday, 06 June 2012

Neighbourhood shopping parades Localism is beginning to take account of the plight of many local economies, and at last we have a policy paper on the subject of ‘neighbourhood shopping parades,’ backed up by research carried out by GENECON. Let’s at least give credit to this government for putting some energy into this, and hope it contributes to a genuine holistic commitment to neighbourhoods. Both documents offer definitions, but basically it’s about between five and 40 shops in one or more continuous rows, with a mainly local customer base and a high proportion of independent small or micro-businesses. Mercifully, we're spared the rhetoric about such shopping parades being 'the heart of the community' (a claim routinely made for pubs, churches, libraries, post offices, parks etc etc). Local shops tend to be flexible and adaptable, and generate loyalty as part of or in addition to their social role - which itself is gradually and begrudgingly being recognised in policy: if policy had been more enlightened in this respect in recent years we might not have had all that nonsense over post offices). Julian Dobson reports that Mary Portas popped into a meeting he helped organise recently about the future of high streets, asserting that 'social capital creates economic capital'. No, it may not be news to anyone (Jane Jacobs hammered the point 50 years ago) but it does often matter to have people in positions of influence restating such points to build momentum. Local shops offer opportunities for entrepreneurs and new businesses, and for ‘interesting and innovative use’ of empty shops. And they provide opportunities ‘for other businesses to locate in parades that might normally be expected to be elsewhere, but are drawn to local parades for the convenience, the sense of a business community and attractive rents.’ In both papers, happily, it’s recognised that there isn’t necessarily any contradiction between a parade of thriving local shops and the increasing amount of time most of us spend online. Indeed as my colleague Hugh Flouch has been arguing for some time, the potential integration of local online with neighbourhood trade is rich and there to be developed. At the same time, it’s important not to overlook the agonies that some local traders cause for residents sometimes. I remember a work colleague, years ago, wretchedly suffering interrupted nights and threats because of an anti-social taxi company. Smelly food, noisy crack-of-dawn deliveries, penetrating bright flashing lights, car oil or trash on the pavements – there may be lots of reasons why it makes sense to ensure community involvement in the management of neighbourhood shopping parades as entities. In the strategy paper, there’s a section on councils working collectively with local traders in their interests and, by extension in most cases, those of local people. To be fair, I know many officers have always tried to do so, but may have been overwhelmed by powerful forces working in the opposite direction. Hopefully, that’s what might be changing now.

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