The Government launched a £3m high street regeneration fund today, which will apparently be divvied up between 57 councils in the UK’s most deprived areas. Communities secretary John Denham says the fund will go towards finding ‘creative ways’ to transform vacant properties into thriving community facilities. But what exactly will the councils be able to get with this generous grant? Not much, is probably the short answer...
Mr Denham reckons that the funding, which (as the mathematicians among you will note) equates to around a modest £50k per council, will help councils come up with bright ideas to revive the high streets that are struggling the most. Ideas mooted so far include turning vacant shops into learning centres, meeting places for local people or even some kind of space for local artists to showcase their talent. Apparently fashion designer Wayne Hemingway is already doing something along these lines in Gateshead.
This is all very well, but £50,000 is barely going to cover the tea and biscuits bill for the council’s planning meetings – let alone the ‘consultation’ with local communities, the civil servants required to keep track of how the money is being spent, or even the lick of paint these empty stores will probably need to turn them into bijou art galleries. Perhaps if it was £3m each – but the public coffers don’t have that kind of money.
There is clearly a problem here. The number of empty retail outlets is thought to have doubled in the past year, as recession-hit retailers have been brought to their knees – in February the figure was put at around 150,000 by market research firm Experian, but it’s likely to be a lot higher now. With 88m extra square feet of retail space created over the past two decades, it’s not really surprising that stores are emptying as people get the message that we can’t keep sticking everything on plastic. So councils have a tough task on their hands stopping their high streets turning into ghost towns.
Denham insists this pocket money can make a difference: ‘These grants will help to transform and reopen empty shops, as part of our real help to keep town centres vibrant and to combat the recession,’ he said today. But if the Government really does want to help regenerate our high streets, as opposed to just announcing voter-friendly gimmicks, it will probably need to dig a little deeper.
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