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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder