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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation