Published: 00:00, 11 April 2014
| Updated: 09:58, 11 April 2014
Guy Nicholson has put forward a number of thought-provoking ideas for solving the town centres’ malaise.
Whatever his sparkling new plans, however, he said it would take good-old fashioned solidarity to see them through.
He said: “People are talking to me all the time about the town centres’ decline and the struggle for them to remain viable.
“The problem at the moment is we’re all competing against each other, but things move quickly and great things happen when you come together.”
Mr Nicholson, 53, who was nominated by his party to take on Gordon Henderson MP last year, is currently a serving councillor in Hackney, east London, where he’s cabinet member for regeneration.
So he’s well-placed, you might think, to opine on what it might take to re-energise the fortunes of his prospective constituency.
Having spoken about the need for different sectors to come together – business, voluntary, residential and community – and claiming a one-size-fits-all answer wouldn’t do as the towns are “different characters”, he began to colour in the outlines of his High Street manifesto.
Point one being: “There should be no more out-of-town retail.” He said: “The classic example is the KFC and Morrisons set-up outside Sheerness. What’s their contribution to Sheerness High Street?
“Developers had to make a financial contribution to the town centre, but it was a pitifully small amount – about £100,000.
“That money could’ve been used to put together a working plan for Sheerness, a plan that we could have all contributed to.
“Our town centres also needed to capitalise on pop-up shops,” he said, because “temporary use is better than no use at all”.
But he insisted that all vacant premises should remain commercial propositions. “I would put an absolute block on any conversion of shops to dwellings,” he said.
Talking up Sheerness and Sittingbourne’s assets was another priority, according to the dad of one, which he said could be addressed with better marketing.
He cited Jenny Hurkett’s renovation of the Blue Town Heritage Centre as a blueprint for selling the towns’ wares. Then there’s the markets.
The consultation process about moving Sittingbourne’s into the High Street is ongoing.
Mr Nicholson said he would relocate it to the main shopping thoroughfare as a catalyst for greater high street regeneration.
He said Sheerness Market should also have a high-street location and be supported by pop-up shops, including one selling fish caught by the fleet at Queenborough.
Sittingbourne’s wider pavements would suit a cafe culture, he said, built around a food festival where “local businesses such as the butchers and bakers” would be a product source.
“Faversham has a beer festival, Whitstable has its oyster Festival, why can’t Sittingbourne host a Kent Food Festival?” he said. Big and ideas, all, but who’s going to pay for them?
Mr Nicholson returned to the “different sectors coming together” theme, and added: “It’s as much about making a contribution in kind as money.”
Which sounds a bit like Big Society with all free hands on deck, but the councillor insisted his brave new high streets would be built on “sustainable business”.
Asked about the innovations he has introduced in Hackney, Mr Nicholson pointed to the town centre partnership forums he helped to set up four years ago.
He said it would work in Kent, because “when a person walks into that town centre for the first time wanting to make an investment, they’ve someone to go and talk to about it”.
Did he have anything more unusual up his sleeve? “Indestructible table tennis tables,” he ventured, as a means to fill town centre space. Greenery is good, too.
“There’s nothing better than walking down a high street in summer, shaded by trees,” he added, and said “a buskers’ corner” would add to the town centre’s artistic gaiety.
Mr Nicholson refuted the economic school of thought that decrees that modern high streets should be a survival of the fittest – profit or die and let someone else have a go.
“It would be absolute nonsense to turn our backs on the communities which make up our town centres,” he said.
“Successful town centres don’t reject their heritage, don’t push people aside. Successful town centres bring everybody who’s a part of it to work together.”
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