You may have seen the government’s latest pointless distraction in the form of the Portas pilot towns, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18212669 In essence, various towns bid for the princely sum of one hundred grand to rejuvenate their town centre in some way. Now as ever, when the government is chucking around free money, there are plenty of people saying yes please, but this latest idea is nonsense on stilts.
First, the whole basis for this is deeply flawed. Portas in her initial report didn’t worry too much about the crushing levels of uniform business rates shops are forced to pay for the privilege of opening for business. A small outlet in a mall in sunny Basingstoke will cost you £50 grand a year rates. That’s not a misprint. Tony Soprano can only envy the government in this regard. Really, if you want to ‘rejuvenate the high street’ abolish UBR, you would be surprised how effective this could be.
Second, why does anyone want to force people back into town centres. Shoppers that have money to spend seem to prefer out of town centres, supermarkets or any number of alternatives, people have voted with their feet, why is this even an objective of policy.
Last and least are the idiotic uses to which this money is to be put. Wolverhampton seem to think (and presumably the government agree as they have been awarded the cash) that a town crier (sic) is what will have people coming back to town in droves; Nelson like the idea of a youth café. Yep, encourage young people without much disposable income to hang around, that’s bound to bring back the oldies; Dartford town council seem to think they know more about running shops than actual shopkeepers whilst Liskeard seem to think the answer lies with guerrilla gardening whatever that maybe.
Everything that is wrong with government is here. Forced appropriation of the cash in the first place, then giving a tiny amount back and giving it not to the businesses themselves but to the ever-wise local councils. Then there is council rent-seeking and more localised versions of the same as guerrilla gardeners compete with town criers for government largesse.
Joan Armatrading had it right.