New Economy North Social – exploring a manifesto for the North

This week PLACED team member Sam joined the New Economy, IPPR North and the People’s Powerhouse crowds for an event to get both political and Northern. The event included a panel of really interesting speakers and some points to chat with other attendees. Heavy politics and light networking.

First up, Dr Lucy Montague speaking about their brilliant co-authored book ‘High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis’ in which they consider yet another death of the high street. Having looked at 100 high streets across the UK Lucy and colleagues have optimistically found that, despite the various reports that the high street is dead, they did in fact still exist and that people were still using them. Clearly all is not what it was, and in some places high streets are faring better than others. But what they point out is that that through all the crises over the centuries the high street has endured. So, far from dying the high street is transitioning.

The take aways for me were that in revising and replanning our high streets and town centres we need double down on locating services in these centres, supporting businesses locating on high streets and embrace the flux. We can’t simply redesign a new version of the high street only to replace that in the next 20 years. Build in flexibility. 

This resonated for me having spent the day at BirkenEd’s Place, our ‘urban room’ in the jargon, over in Birkenhead. Birkenhead’s town centre isn’t what it once was. It has suffered. But it isn’t dead. We’ve met lots of people in the shop, located on one of the main high streets in Birkenhead, over the past year and most weren’t coming in specifically to see us. They came for another purpose. The town centre must still mean something. We hope that we’re able to support the transition of Birkenhead in our little way to a town centre that has the flexibility to weather future storms.

Next up Sacha Bedding, from the ‘Wharton Trust’ and ‘We’re Right Here’. A really important reminder for all Northerners (long standing and adopted like me) that there is a lot of North beyond Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Visiting us from Hartlepool we were encouraged to think of an anthology of manifestoes for the North to reflect its diversity. Each place, and community has its shared concerns, but also its unique needs and any manifesto worth its salt needs to pull that off.

Sacha also suggested there was a civic dishonesty sometimes from our Local Authorities. Perhaps feeling obliged to bluff or style out their predicaments. Sacha suggested being more honest about the state of things. We were also encouraged to make sure that local people can influence decision making, institutions, funding, services, their towns and high streets. Definitely something PLACED can sign up to!

Third was Law student and activist Roukagia Afan. Picking up seamlessly on Sacha’s reminder to consider diversity, Roukagia spoke of the cultural, religious, ethic diversity of the North and called for greater representation. Speaking as a young Muslim woman from a working-class background she highlighted how phrases like ‘hard to reach’ and ‘including youth voice’ can ring hollow. Communities exist, they are out there, and they care about the future. Go where people are, where communities gather, visit their organisations and you’ll get your views. Shout out to RECLAIM for those wanting to connect and support with working class people. But, she cautioned, connect with a spirit of partnership. Young people, for example, are interested and political, but they want to be influential not tokens.

We were also reminded to make sure our own house was in order alongside any manifesto. How do our organisations reflect diversity, support communities, and live by the ethics we might write into policy.

Our final words from the panel came from Councillor Paul Dennett, leader of Salford City Council and Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester. Paul talked interestingly of the realities of decision making within Local Authorities, moments of forced pragmatism, falling short of the ideal, and of the contradictions of being part of the ‘flagship’ devolution region in GM and yet experiencing real cuts to local authority budgets from central government. His manifesto was somewhat more worked out – he’s obviously been thinking about this. We heard about ‘glocalism’, thinking globally but acting locally. This had appeal for me and perhaps guards against hyperlocal decisions which reflect a retreat away from some of the big issues we face as a society. I’m not sure I’m ready for another jargony portmanteau, but it’s in the world now. Paul also covered skills, training, council housing, reducing inter-Local Authority competition and more.

For our work at PLACED I naturally gravitated to the high street and how the built environment can support communities, reflect communities, and provide space for communities to thrive. We’re working on and beginning some exciting projects across our corner of the North and I think, and hope, that we’re able to encourage some of this.

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