Big government is not the solution for our high streets
Big government has never been more fashionable. With unprecedented state interventions, massive government spending sprees and bailouts dominating the news bulletins, Whitehall’s levers of power have gone into overdrive.
Big government not only commands public support, there’s now a unique consensus between Britain’s two major political parties on extending the reach of the state.
This is perfectly understandable in a time of Covid-19. Introducing furlough schemes and widening the social security net is something only government can do. And it’s right that ministers have taken action.
But, the power of the state shouldn’t blind us to its limitations. You only have to look at the farcical situations with schools, for example. Children can currently go to a theme park or zoo but many are still denied a meaningful opportunity to learn. If ever there was a challenge crying out for local solutions, this was it.
While big government has unquestionably got power and reach, it frequently lacks innovation. Too often real innovation comes not from Ministers but communities who understand their local needs better than anyone.
No issue better illustrates this than the challenge of rebuilding our communities in a post Covid-19 era.
This week my colleagues at Social helped launch a Covid-19 review for town centres and high streets by the veteran retailer, Bill Grimsey, and a team of experts. Its simple but powerful message was that we need to give people more control and ownership of their place.
This means a decisive shift in power away from central government so local people are empowered to redesign their own high streets and have a say on the businesses, services and amenities that occupy it, with increased CPO powers if necessary.
It’s a move that, in part, is born out of people’s frustration at having regeneration ‘done’ to them. But it also recognises that we need to move away from identikit, clone town streets to places designed around unique community character and local needs.
With lockdown showing people have developed a bigger attachment to their local area, now is the perfect time to harness an increase in community spirit for the benefit of high streets everywhere.
Among the 27 recommendations are calls for powerful new community right to buy laws to ensure unused or neglected properties are forced back onto the market, and can be bought by community trusts or local communities.
There are countless examples across the country of where community businesses are revitalising their local area – and we need more of them.
Take Homebaked in Liverpool, a community land trust and co-operative bakery that’s developing ‘real shops and amenities for local people and visitors alike’.
Or Every One Every Day in Barking and Dagenham, which is incubating hundreds of businesses, from open access makerspaces to childcare cooperatives in unused council shops.
As we come out of lockdown, there will be many community-minded entrepreneurs positively fizzing with ideas and solutions to better their local area. They need to be let off the leash and empowered to rebuild their high streets, not hindered.
Of course, high streets and community regeneration is just one area where a renewed focus on localism is needed.
Whether it’s City Recovery Deals, where council leaders and LEPs create plans tailored to local circumstances, or the need to strengthen our food system through improved local supply chains, devolving powers so decisions are taken closer to the people who are affected by them is critical.
So while the allure of big government rests on the promise of sweeping changes by pulling economic levers, there are far too many problems where this just doesn’t have the desired effect.
Creating a stronger sense of local identity and rebuilding high streets is not something that can be solved in SW1. Inspired local leadership with devolved powers will be key to meeting many of the challenges of a post-Covid-19 world, not distant bureaucrats.