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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change