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22 July 2015

Our high streets need a sense of community just as much as retail

Why Bristol will be resisting plans to extend Sunday trading hours, and why the government should prioritise the "social recovery" that David Cameron previously said was his mission.

By George Ferguson

In 2011 David Cameron gave a speech that attempted to set out his mission. “What is my mission? What is it I am really passionate about?” he asked. “It’s actually social recovery as well as economic recovery.”

I thought about that arresting phrase, which seems to have disappeared without a trace, when the Chancellor recently announced that extending trading hours on a Sunday was a part of his economic plan to, “ensure a truly national recovery”. All talk of a social recovery seems to have disappeared, as has any visible sense of community mission.

This is worrying. governments have always worked best when they combine economic competence with a strong social mission, and, in the case of Sunday trading hours, I fear this represents another missed opportunity. Instead of extending opening hours, ministers should really be looking at doing everything possible to extend the purpose of the high street.

In Bristol we realise our high streets are going through a transformation. Disruptive technology and changing consumer habits mean the old model is, in many ways, no longer fit for purpose. Even if shops were open 24 hours a day they are still unable to protect themselves from the onslaught of online shopping. Online sales in the UK are set to reach over £52bn this year, an increase of 16 per cent on the previous year, and this will continue to grow.

Retail needs to be complemented with a great social offer to ensure our high streets have a future. That’s why I introduced my Bristol Make Sunday Special programme to build on our community strengths and bring people into the city for a much richer and more vibrant experience than simply shopping.

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On the first Sunday of the month from March to October we make parts of the city centre car free and turn the streets into an urban playground with live music, street performers, cooking demonstrations, games, dancing classes, children’s workshops, circus skills and all sorts of other joyous activities. After some initial scepticism, traders have been hugely supportive and the public response has been really enthusiastic.

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To see the massive crowds watching people hurtling down a giant water slide on traffic free Park Street just shows what a little imagination can achieve. This year we have started extending Make Sunday Special into the wider community, the next one being on 23 August in the culturally rich area of Easton.

There are untold benefits to unlocking the potential of public spaces and putting high streets back at the heart of the community. A strong shared identity, greater civic pride and a sense that our retail centres can be much more than just temples of commerce, providing a sense of place and community is the reward for an imaginative approach that will lead to a real social recovery.

The irony is that a social recovery is needed to lock in an economic recovery. You can’t have one without the other. Confident and resilient communities are more productive and best placed to achieve economic growth.

But in an increasingly atomized society where, according to the Office of National Statistics, Britain is the “loneliness” capital of Europe, politicians continue to blindly ignore the fact that community spirit is a precious but diminishing resource.

Other cities around the world are starting to get this. In Bogota, Mayor Gustavo Pedro is explicit in his aim to redesign the city to make people happier.  The weekly Ciclovia car free weekend has been phenomenally successful not just in promoting better health and reducing emissions but also in building social capital and encouraging social integration.

But the impoverished politics that dominates political discourse in this country all too frequently ignores the need to develop policies to boost communities.

There is still a worrying view among far too many politicians that human beings can only achieve fulfillment through economic activity.

Business minister Anna Soubry’s recent comments on why Sunday trading hours need to be extended typify this prevailing orthodoxy.

“Sundays used to be the most miserable day of the week before shopping,” she argued, with the implicit suggestion that hours of extra shopping would make everyone much happier. This simply isn’t true. Shopping isn’t some magical activity that makes everyone happier.

And that’s why high streets must change and re-think their purpose. As more and more shopping is done online, shopping will have to become part of a bigger community and social experience for high streets to remain relevant.

Sooner or later we’ll have to recognise that our traditional trading places must foster a strong sense of community as well as drive prosperity. Perhaps then, the social recovery that was David Cameron’s clearly articulated mission will finally get underway.

George Ferguson is the Independent Mayor for Bristol.