Category Archives: Environment

The high street, where next?

This was the follow up blog I wrote almost a year ago…

February 4, 2012

I have been thinking about where next for our beleagured High Streets, you know the town centres that are no longer the centre of much for many people nowadays. There is no pushing back the tide of the supermarkets, the internet and the fact that people are spread out more geographically, there are more of them and everyone seemingly needs to use cars. But I reckon there are some things that could be done at the policy level of local and national Government.

I am yet to read Mary Portas’s report commissioned by BIS, but I intend to do so. Meantime here is my ten point plan for a revival:-

  1. Increase business rates on all out of town shopping centres. Levy charges on cube footage including car parks.
  2. Reduce all business rates on inner city/town commercial buildings. For all start ups give a rate free period measured in years. .
  3. Increase public transport into town and city centres – start with buses, minbuses and then trams when budgets allow. Make them all free to use.
  4. Deregulate parking, make it all free. Build more car parks.
  5.  Repair all broken windows on empty properties and municipal buildings. This should be the local council’s job and it will create jobs. Spend money on the fabric of existing buildings rather than creating new ones whilst money is tight.
  6.  Cut red tape and allow unused shops to be turned back into housing.
  7. Encourage all social enterprise and services to locate in the centre by waiving all rates. Definitions are needed, but work something out that says if you are putting back, giving or supplying services for old or young, you don’t pay extra tax.
  8. Make all businesses responsible for their own waste collection. Let them self manage and change car parking wardens for recycling officers.
  9. Aquire land/buildings from the private sector and re-let at aggressive rates to social enterprise businesses.

10.Levy council funds as a direct proportion of profits. If a store cannoty prove its turnover and is therefore part of a chain, it should pay rates at standard tariff if it is a single site business then it only pays rates if it makes a profit. The more successful the business, the more that business pays. Allow businesses to take risk and take time to build.

Above all, encourage enterprise and the public to understand what is best served on the High Street. Anything that is sold easily via the internet is not going to work. Equally commodoties that are sold by supermarkets don’t work either. Keep it social and keep it niche. Ensure that older people and young people have a reason to travel and make it free to travel to and from the city/town centre. Strike proper partnerships between small to medium size enterprises and local authorities, geared around mutual success and long term shared goals. Encourage small traders, young and old. Create a feeling of civic pride and renewal.

I am sure it could happen, if everyone did their bit. But we need leadership from the national Government and councils and we need that to be decisive and to happen now. We don’t want wishy woshy ideas, we need firm policies that encourage small organisations to grow. Get younger people, with fresh ideas and energy into elected councils and let’s make the centres exciting morning, noon and night.

Napoleon called the English ‘ a nation of shopkeepers’, we should remember that and celebrate our heritage through innovative and creative use of our High Streets.

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High noon for the high street

This is a blog post I wrote last February originally on fivehombres.com

Posted on February 3, 2012 by Andy

I have been worried about the state of the UK High Streets for some time. I reckon it was about 15 years ago, maybe 20 at a push that things noticeably changed and they all started to become the same everywhere you went.

I thought it would be helpful to do some quick research into the origins of the phrase ‘High Street’. Apparently ‘high’ has evolved to mean something excellent or of superior rank,  and is at least a thousand years old in terms of its use. “High Street” began to be used to describe the thoroughfares containing the main retail areas in villages and towns. Trading points evolved along these routes and gradually the concept of the modern shop and High Street came to pass.

Whilst many High Streets from the 80′s had branded chain stores like WH Smith,Boots, Woolworths, supermarket stores (rather than the retail park sheds of today) many also had a good mix of independent stores, which sold goods such as electrical goods, food, shoes, music, films, clothes, toys, hardware, newsagents and more. Many other shops actually sold services, such as barbers/hairdressers, opticians, vets, doctors, shoe repairs, cinemas, pubs, restaurants, libraries, dry cleaners and so on. Today you are lucky to find anyone other than charity shops, coffee shops, nail bars, take away food, the odd women’s clothing store, hairdressers and a major ‘express’ version of a supermarket.

It feels like there are some key factors that have accelerated the descent of most of the UK’s High Streets into drab, weary and potentially dying places.

Retail rents and rates – it seems that rents levied by private landlords only ever go up and rates levied by the local councils do likewise. Small businesses have less chance of getting started. This means that major chain stores, well financed and staffed with specialist retail site experts at central office, with bulk purchasing power are able to take all the prime locations, hence everything looks like everything else. We get less real choice and also less variety. In short we have clone towns.

Out of town shopping centres – the more we have moved out of towns and cities onto housing estates, the more we have come to rely on our cars, the more the population has increased, then we have tended to build big and bold on the outskirts of towns and cities. There is no room or ability for smaller traders to take space in these enormo parks. Instead we have the same stores, which are normally just bigger versions of the clone town stores, and super sized fast food places. Throw in a multi plex cinemas which are really a series of mini cinemas with poor sound and vision and a supermarket and you have a typical souless trading place.

Supermarkets – the inexorable rise of the supermarkets, mainly Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, has seen a massive choice of wares, products, produce and services availble to all of us. Unlike every other instance of ‘parasitic socio economic georgraphic theory’ whereby you used to get true competition on a High Street through similar stores being able to locate next to each other, supermarkets don’t play that game. They never locate anywhere near each other, they just tell you they are more competitive than their rivals and once you are in, they have you.

The Internet – It is no surprise that e-commerce has revolutionised our shopping. This has virtually killed off the music retailers and is having a damaging effect on books, films, video games and consumer electronics.

Time – this is a factor that is effecting everyone. With all the choices we have nowadays, we simply don’t have the time to invest in trawling around a number of shops looking for our wares. Under one roof and the illusion of value is far more appealing, hence the empires of WalMart and Tesco have risen to a position of absolute power in retailing.

These factors and more are unlikely to reverse anytime soon, so maybe it is best if there are some policies which Governement, local and national, can put in place to revive these places before they are lost forever?

I want to think about some simple ideas which could revive these High Streets and make them socially more relevant. Back soon.

 

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#oneaday 29: Hugging trees as well as Hoodies in a Big Society

Things are looking up. The Coalition Government are showing that they are prepared to listen to the citizens, after all we do live in a democracy, don’t we? This new approach of listening is more than Labour ever seemed to do,  indeed Mr Blair and Mr Brown seemed pretty incapable of listening, or even looking before they acted. Maybe our leaders have taken their cue to this new approach from the activity and turbulence currently taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, fearing that the peaceful protest of ordinary people in the UK  could escalate. Or may be they have decided to stop wasting time on policies that are not absolutely ‘in the national interest’ ?

Thus, despite the protestations of my local MP and his personal letter to me which assured me that the consultation would be ‘comprehensive’ and that he had voted ‘against the Labour motion’, as if I care if it is a Labour motion or not, the proposed Act has been kicked well and truly into touch. I think we are in week 3 of a 12 week process, so one can tell that this proposed policy has not reallly had any poplar support amongst Coalition MPs, let alone opposition MPs. Take a look at The Politics Show from 8th Feb, you will see despite some pretty hard questions, the Minister who made these proposals  Ms Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs,  did her best to tell us that ‘the lady’s not for turning, yet.’ But we all knew it was not terribly convincing at all.

So it really was  rather nice to see and hear a poltician actually say sorry this week. Sorry for wasting time and thus money. That is new. Politicians saying sorry is pretty rare not just nowadays but any days! Indeed, it was refreshing to see Mr Cameron telling the House of Commons that he really was not that impressed with the policy at all. He even said it with a sense of humour. Hats off to him. It is worth seeing how both politicians dealt with this climb down, may be a sign of a little more humility on the part of all politicians and a sign that debating the issues ahead of us is not just the domain of Parliamentarians, but in this day and age where access to the old media via new media, means that citizens can make their opinions heard, seen and read. Indeed, peaceful and intelligent protest must be the way forward for a democracy.  Have a quick look here courtesy of ITN News.

Mr Cameron has proved that he is prepared to hug more than just Hoodies. He has hugged the Trees, a vital mainstay of any environment, and long overdue for some love from our leaders. Labour sold off  parts of our forests, but we did not notice! Let’s hope Mr Cameron gives Ms Spelman a big hug, she has had a rough few weeks and seems like a decent enough lady and no one likes to be made to look stupid, especially in public.

One final thought. Every cloud has a silver lining. Mr Cameron has struggled to get his concept of the ‘Big Society’ through to all of us. Actually it is us that have struggled to understand the principle, if the truth be told. For my part, I think the ‘Big Society’ is something positive that comes from a number of citizens working together, without pay, collaborating, sharing and helping others. It is cross cultural and cross class. It sees positive action and costs the state ie the tax payer absolutely nothing at all and above all fosters a sense of belonging, purpose and identity.

 The campaign against the sell off of our forests has been organised by a the action group 38 Degrees. 38 Degrees is a not for profit organisation who say that they campaign for fairness, defend rights, promote peace preserve the planet and deepen democracy in the UK.  I must say they seem to do exactly that. They explained the issue, broadcast it to anyone who was interested via the internet, engaged with social media, asked for donations and allowed ordinary citizens to write to their MPs. And they ran a petition. It was completely free to take part, and over 500,000 UK voters signed the petition.  For me, this is an example of the ‘Big Society’ in action. Let’s hope we can all take part in campaigns to deliver fairer taxes, democratic voting reforms, key climate change issues and protection of our NHS, from privatisation and the pursuit of corporate profit over national health. That will help us all live in a bigger society.

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#oneaday 27: Out of the woods or just out of touch?

I have read the piece printed in our local newspaper written by my local MP about the proposed selling off of our forests. It also seems that I am one of 400 (out of 68,600) who has written to him on the subject. On the surface that seems like a very small proportion of the voters, and perhaps it is, however it does assume a 100% of voters are always considered in these statistical arguments. But we don’t live in a true democracy, ie one that actually values and takes account of all those who bother to vote. Rather we use an arcane system that has been with us for about 200 years, the so called ‘first past the post system’.  This is a system which typically allows under 40% of the population who do vote to command a majority government.

Under 40% and majority, in the same sentence, not exactly logical is it? Well in May, there may or may not be a referendum (the unelected House of Lords are currently voting on this , to make the whole thing even more bizarre) where the population eligible to vote, including prisoners no doubt, will be asked if they want to see the introduction of the ‘Alternative Vote’ or ‘AV’ system or not. A simple ‘Yes’ (for the AV) or ‘No’ (against any change to the exsiting system). The ‘No’ campaign will point to this change allowing small, minority parties effectively holding the balance of power. Fair point, if the current system was actually giving us a majority of voters voting for the winning party, but it doesn’t. The ‘No’ campaign will also point to the fact that the AV system is only used by Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia as if these are 3rd world democracies. They won’t tell you that most of Europe actually has a proportional representation system or ‘single transferable vote’. Put simply, in those democracies every vote ultimately counts and the government is elected in proportion to the votes cast by all those who vote. That seems fairer in my book.  But that is my book!

In reality, the AV system is a change, but because the Liberal Democrats (who are in favour of full proportional representation) could only negotiate a small change with the Conservatives within their Coalition deal, it is a compromise. But that is what evolutionary and progressive government should be, negotiated compromise, which is often derided as ‘weal governement’. Well it represents a step towards reform and change and besides, ‘Yes’ is a better word than ‘No’ so I for one will want to hear more from both sides, before I make my vote for this important first past the post vote.

Back to my MP, incidentally a man who occupies an uber safe seat, which under the current system will never see any other party get a look in. He has decided that the sell off of the forestry policy is clearly worth sticking with. A pity then that today saw the policy effectively booted beyond the long grass and into the copse yonder by The Prime Minister, who clearly feels that it may be worth listening to over 500,000 people who have signed a petition opposing the proposed legislation. It’s not democracy, but it is a step in the right direction.

Here, for the record is the piece my MP wrote for our local paper. Time will judge his stance on this subject. Wish him well if we ever get a change to the voting system. He will need more votes than he normally gets! Also, see if you can see the funny side of this. I certainly can.

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What do you think has been the biggest single issue in my mailbag this week? ? Afghanistan? Egypt
and the Middle East? The economy? Lynehham? Planning and development? Health and education?
None of them. I have received something like 400 letters on the question of whether or not the 15%
or so of our national forests which are still owned and managed by civil servants would or would not
be better off joining the other 85 % which has been in private hands for many generations.

Now I well accept that there are passionately held views on both sidees of the argument. In an area like
this, but perhaps even more so if we lived in an urban environmennt, we love our forests. Walking,
cycling, and riding through them. Looking out of the car window at them, knowing that they are there
providing biodiversity and a haven for our wildlife, and helping eat up the carbon we all pump out.
Locally we are naturally concerrned about the ancient King’s huntinng grounds in Bradon Forest and
the superb Arboretum at Westonbirt. (Aboout both of which I had a quiet word with Minister Jim
Paice in the lobbies.) But where the verywell-orchestrated campaign against privatisation is
misleading is in the suggestion that that would somehow or another lead to an end to our forests, or at
least an end to access to them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Much privately owned forestry is bettter managed and has
much better public access than very much of the Forestry Commission land. It will be sold on a long
lease with carefully worded access, maintenance and biodiversity clauses written in. And anyhow,
what mad entrepreneur is going to buy a huge Forestry Commission wood, knock it down and then
forlornly try to get planning permission to develop it? It would be a commercially absurd thing to do.
I think I am right in saying that only one planning application in the country has succeeded in
woodland in the paast 40 years. Those who own and manage forests grow them and harvest them
sustainably, in precisely the same way as a farmer grows and harvests his wheat.

And as to the ‘heritaage forests’ – and I will be seeking to ensure that Bradon Forest is one of them –
they will be made over to a charitable or local trust to look after for perpetuity. I am very glad that
much off our heritage forestry was long ago handed over or sold to the Woodland Trust, and that our
historic houses are run so very well by the National Trust. Trusts will allow acceess to volunteer help.
The highly successful Friends of Oakfrith Wood at Urchfont, purchased by a local Trust and managed
and run by locals for locals is a good example. Charitable trusts do a very good job maintaining
heritage that governments might well be more careless about!

So I fear that I am not one of those who believe that being ‘nationally owned’ and run by civil
servants is necessarily a good thing. After all, I well remember similar arguments being advanced
when we privatised British Airways for example. I am as determined as any to preserve and enhance
our forests, but simply believe that that is more likely to be achieved by a properly regulated private
sector than by rather a creaking old public sector body like the Forestry Commission which was
established in the first place to supply pit props and railway sleepers ! So I am sorry to disapppoint the
400 or so constituents who have made it plain that they disagree with me on this issue, but I hope that
at least most of the other 68,6000 voters may think I have done the right thing by supporting the
Coalition Government on the matter. Would it be too corny to suggest that those who are so militantly
opposed to it frankly can’t see the wood for the trees?

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#oneaday 22: Our democratic right to a reply?

I have just received a letter and Papers  from my local MP , Mr James Gray, in response to my letter to register my disapproval against the proposed sell off of our forests to private owners.

Here it is. Talk about using disingenuous pieces of information…..dear oh dear. It will be interesting to see what reply I get next time round. Hopefully one that actually addresses my questions rather than ‘here’s a load of information, pick the bones out of that’, which appears to be the norm. Transparency  is the word!

————————–

Dear Mr Gray,

Thank you for your letter of 28th January 2011 and for enclosing the recently published papers by Rt Hon. Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. I have posed a number of questions which I would like to put to you for consideration.

In the press notice, I question why it is stated that the ‘new direction for England’s public forest estate will protect for future generations’? Can I ask if the current status quo puts these forests under threat? Indeed, the paper goes on to state that ‘the transfer of heritage forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean to charitable trusts will mean walkers, riders and cyclists will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment’. Again, are we to suppose that the current ownership model, by the us the people, will threaten our access in the future?

The paper goes on to state. ‘The proposals would remedy the situation where the Commisson is the largest commercial operator in the sector it also regulates’. Can I ask who exactly has made complaints that this is the case? Is it commercial competitors or is it the state, or indeed the people? Indeed, why has the Government already committed to taking 15% of the public forest estate out of state control over the course of this Parliament? You say you will generate £100m income, but what of the cost longer term? Is this a decision driven by the need to unlock money for assets or is it some other principle? £100m in the grand scheme of things, when we waste money on a daily basis in Afghanistan, is frankly pushing irony to its limit. Indeed, do we know how much this nation has spent on Afghanistan under this Government and the previous Government’s administration? Are these figures agreed, audited and known?

I note also the statement that ‘state control of forests dates back to the First World War. when needs were very different. There is now no need for Government to be in the business of timber production and forest management.’ This statement suggests that the concept of state ownership of forests is wrong, and by referencing the First World War, we are somehow living in an outdated manner. Given that we are still involved in t least one futile conflict, maybe your Government would consider rolling this principle out a little further and re-examining exactly what value we are getting from Her Majesty’s Forces being in Afghanistan?

Pam Warhurst, Chair of the Forestry Commission said, ‘Ministers have set out a new vision for forestry in England that will require a fundamental shift in our thinking and how we work. The proposals provide an opportunity to think about ownership and and sustainable land management in a new way and to engage in a wider cross section of society. The consultation will allow people to have their say and we encourage everyone with an interest to give us their views’.  Can I ask did Ms Warhust make this statement, as a public servant, before or after  Ms Spelman had issued her ideas? Does Ms Warhurst believe this is the righh thing to do, or is she just toeing the line? What was the process in Scotland and Wales, and did their Forestry Commissions decide to reject this policy?

I also refer to the letter to all Coalition MPs dated 27th January from Ms Spelman – headed ‘useful points to be aware of’. Frankly this looks like the work of an over eager undergraduate advisor!

1) Only 18% of England’s woodlands is managed by the Forestry Commission. The remainder being owned by various types of organisation. Is this some sort of statement to mitigate the process. Is she saying  ‘please don’t worry, there is nothing new here, it is quite normal, please move on’?
2) ‘Between 1997 – 2010 over 25,000 acres sold with significantly less access and benefit protections that would be the case now’. This somehow suggests, in that awfuly immature party political way that ‘what we are doing is so much better than the previous lot’. Just because Labour, new or otherwise, made a cock up and sold land off to private ownership does not mean it is OK to do the same, as long as you do it ‘better’. Why did we, the people, not know about this? Maybe, just maybe it was down  the appalling lack of transparency that abounded in our public life 5 years or so back.
3) Continuing along the line of argument that ‘Labour were doing this anyway so we are not sure what the problem is’, she states ‘reform of the public forestry estate has been under consideration for some time under the previous Government, with the 2009 ‘Operational Efficiency Programme’ detailing ‘alternatives to public ownership’ and ‘new commercial opportunities’ for the estate. Does this really make the case that this policy is right??

I have checked and noted that in the Commons vote on selling off our woodlands you have voted to support  this policy.  Over 400,000 people and counting have expressed their dismay by petition and yet MPs seem to take little notice. Many of these MPs are the very same Labour and Conservative MPs that refused to acknowledge 1 million ordinary people in the streets of London who marched against the war in Iraq.

Could you also explain to me why you believe that it’s us – the voters – who have got this wrong and not the government? I hope that as my representative in Parliament you will reconsider your position.

Finally, can you enlighten me on a question of Freedom of Information. If these proposals are made law, will the private companies who buy these forests be subject to FOI requests in the same way that the Forestry Commission are now? We are in an age of transparency after long last, and the Coalition Government pride themselves in a new ‘transparent’ approach.

I look forward to hearing from you,

With kind regards,

Andrew Payne

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#oneaday17: Robin Hood or Robbing Us?

When you read this short but important statement issued by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra I must admit, I worry, once I understand the context:-

“We are committed to shifting the balance of power from big government to big society by giving individuals, businesses, civil society organisations and local authorities a much bigger role in enhancing the natural environment”

Our ancient forests are going to be sold to private companies, why?

So, with horror, I have read about the UK Government’s stated policy to sell some of our ancient woodlands in a bid to reduce the deficit (here we go again) by some £700 million, a pretty small sum all things considered – think the cost of Wembley Stadium. This includes land in The New Forest, The Forest of Dean  and Sherwood Forest as well as much more.

Government ministers want to transfer power and ownership  from the nation via the Forestry Commission, which owns 18% of woodlands to private business and ‘the big society’, claiming that  this move will giver greater public control. Quite what the logic of this is actually beyond me? I suppose when the land is sold off, then more people may be in control than currently, ie the civil servants, but that is a completely bogus argument.  Apparently a public consultation will begin  next week and a bill to enable the sale is due to go before the House of Lords soon after. Let’s hope the Lords, famed for their independence and propensity to check recklessness by Government, calls this policy into question.

The pressure group 38 Degrees carried out a poll via YouGov and found that 75% of the 2,000 people it polled were against the plans and 84% agreed that that forests should stay publically owned. So far some according to Channel 4 News tonight 130,000 people have signed the petition run by 38 Degrees, it will be interesting to see if this number will rise substantially as the media begins to focus on the issue. For once, this feels like an open vote issue, many traditional left, right and centre voters being united that they want forests to stay free and hold back the small band of private property owners who wish to put their profit, not the environment, first.

Look what happened when the railways, energy companies and airports were sold off in the 80’s. We have ended up with a ludicrously expensive and disjointed railway system, our energy prices are sky high and under foreign ownership and Heathrow, owned by a massively over leveraged (ie skint) Spanish company, can’t get rid of snow and ice as quickly as they should. I am neither pro or anti private ownership of national institutions, but I would like us to weigh up the consequences. For a paltry £700 million do we really think this is the righ thing to do?

Since I watched Channel 4 News, the number of people who have signed the petition has risen to 178,350. If you fancy signing, here’s the link. This is a very sad state of affairs.

http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/save-our-forests#petition

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