Sustainable high streets

Residents can help shape a green and community-focused and future for their high street

One of my earliest impressions of London was of a place packed full of high streets. I formed this impression was while I was still at school, on the way to a party with five friends from Cheltenham, packed into a 2CV and making a proper meal of getting from the M40 to Wimbledon (yes I know we should have taken the M4).

I had been on school trips to the museums and the South Bank before, but those had left me completely unprepared for quite how big London is. What amused me most was that, as we wound our tortuous way south, we’d drive down street after street that was simply called ‘high street’. London wasn’t just one place, I realised, but a massive network of villages, each with their own town centre and their own unique high street.

As a Green now, I appreciate the importance of our high streets not as placemarkers on a student version of the Odyssey, but at the core of a vast range of diverse local communities. However, I was reminded about that trip this week, as I was shown around the streets, canals and islands behind Brentford High Street on a fascinating tour with local councillor Andrew Dakers.

Andrew is working hard to make sure Brentford town centre gets the maximum benefit from a major redevelopment of the area to the south of the local high street, and he was elected (as a LibDem) largely because of his leadership in pulling together local people to propose their own vision for the regeneration.

The historic waterside area below Brentford High Street, leading down to the Grand Union Canal (also the River Brent), is currently filled with boatyards, derelict industrial buildings in need of restoration, and mid-century workshops, offices and warehouses - most of which are empty as they have been gradually bought up by developers.

With the area neglected for many decades, and plans expected soon from the new owners of the land, the Brentford High Street Steering Group was set up to avoid the all-too-common situation where a community gets involved in a development only after plans are published and end up stopping an unsuitable scheme in its tracks rather than having a real impact on the details.

Almost eighteen months ago, the Steering Group embarked on a pioneering community planning process, working with local businesses, residents and community organisations to develop in advance their own vision for a sustainable, healthy local high street. After many workshops, walkabouts, surveys and meetings, and after drafting, consulting and then rewriting their proposals, ‘Brentford High Street – the Community Vision’ was published in November last year and it is, as intended, an inspiring document – something that every area in London should have.

The report has a wealth of local history and information about the area, and a total of 114 recommendations covering everything it needs from the regeneration project. These range from water management (essential for a waterside development) to the arts, environment, car parking, heritage preservation and ideas for marketing the high street, which they are already putting into practice with a very fancy Brentford High Street website. With help from the New Economics Foundation and local residents who are in the consultancy business, they have even produced economic models. These will be extremely helpful for scrutinising any plans produced by the developers that try to claim meeting the local area’s needs isn’t ‘cost-effective’.

Having been involved in the campaign for a green, community-focused development in Kings Cross, I know all too well that the process from now until the first new shops and homes are finished will be a long one for the people of Brentford. But, with a robust and detailed vision to work from, they are now extraordinarily well prepared to work constructively with the developers. I hope they will teach them a thing or two about building a sustainable development, and make sure their evidence is used to give them the high street they deserve.

And if it comes across my desk as Mayor, I will of course make sure they get it.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.