A dozen years or so ago, people were concerned that British towns were looking the same. The anxiety was that there was too little differentiation between retail offers. A High Street would contain the usual suspects and many shoppers would crave diversity. Competition between places was not leading to distinctive spaces and boredom was an issue.
While the Great Recession changed the worries of many citizens, the idea of clone towns survived for a while. Even as austerity reduced consumption, many people must have thought that ‘business as usual’ would be restored in time. Analysts may have noted the growing tendency to shop online, but many shoppers thought that it would be possible to continue buying stuff in the old way.
There was a political push to revitalise towns, but there was not enough imagination. The stress on creating experiences could not deliver regeneration across the board. Although some places have suffered more than others, the overall pattern is bleak. Shops are boarded up. Bookmakers, fast-food joints and charity stores are enduring, but many towns are not mounting a sustainable comeback.
It is premature to say precisely what should be done. Green towns are worth considering. Heritage may sometimes be used to positive effect. But at least we need not fear clone towns any more. More serious issues demand our consideration. Places with poor levels of footfall on sunny days will not be brought to life by the odd event.
Local government must bring ideas forward. For such plans to be effective, it is essential that the squeeze on the finance of local authorities is abandoned. Central government should increase income tax and use the resources to give more discretion to those involved in the production of place.