Paul’s Campaign Diary

We need to reimagine our High Streets

To East Grinstead, where we held a lively street stall, and I walked the high street with parliamentary candidate Cllr Ben Cox. We chatted to retailers about the increase in retail crime, and the fact that Sussex is the second-worst police area for unsolved shoplifting crimes.

East Grinstead’s high street is blighted by boarded up shops, like most high streets. The danger is that empty shops become targets for vandalism. Fewer people come to do their shopping. So, the public realm starts to feel unsafe, and a downward spiral begins. It’s nearly 30 years since George L. Kelling and Catharine Coles’ published Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. The authors make the point that a broken window invites further damage, and suggests that no-one is in charge and no-one cares about public spaces.

Ben and I saw some broken windows – the Dominos and the KFC had both been vandalised overnight. What we didn’t see was a single police officer in a morning of campaigning.

We have to re-imagine what our high streets are for. If our shopping habits have changed beyond redemption, which they have, then we have to decide what to do with high streets. I love coffee, charity shops, and getting a shave as much as the next person. But there must be more to high streets than Costa, Oxfam, and the barbers.

The last Labour Government introduced some funding to reclaim local shops and make creative use of the spaces. I remember this because I was the special adviser in the Communities department at the time. Then in 2010, the Tories came in and soon thousands of jobs disappeared and hundreds of shops closed.

Labour’s plan for the high street includes more police on the streets in visible neighbourhood teams. Of course we need to crack down on looting. But it also includes banking hubs to replace closed-down bank branches, a reform of business rates, and a crack-down on crippling late payments for small retailers. We also need to sort out parking, so you don’t need a mortgage to pop to the shops.

The most eye-catching, and possibly the most transforming, is a new ‘right-to-buy’ power for community groups to purchase empty shops. This might be perfect for co-operatives to start up all manner of local initiatives, from community bakeries to art galleries. Unless we get creative and clever, our high streets will hollow out.

In East Grinstead I met a man who had voted Tory all his life. But on Thursday, he told me he will be voting Labour for the first time. The tectonic plates are shifting.