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Revisiting the role of our cities

August 29, 2019

 

Here’s a conundrum. The amount we spend on retail goods in the UK has grown by 20% in the last five years. Meanwhile, the number of retail outlets dropped by around the same proportion – and even more in some places.

 

It’s not just the traditional High Street that is in decline. No-one is building out-of-town shopping malls any more. In simple supply and demand terms, changing trends in our buying habits means there are too many shops chasing far fewer punters.

 

Time was that towns and cities were the focus of regional retail activity. They held the monopoly on department stores whilst the road & rail networks brought in the shoppers.

 

Yet as much as the retail role of cities tends to be a commercial health indicator, it’s worth remembering a few other underlying factors.

 

As has been written elsewhere, once all you needed to become a thriving metropolis was a port and a big labour force. Soon your location became a hub for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. That in turn fostered business growth and prosperity.

 

Perhaps in all our talk of ‘reinventing’ city centres, we should also be honest in recognising that fashionable out-of-town business parks have had as much an competitive impact as the retail variety.

 

That’s why the decision to locate the new digital arena slap-bang in the Swansea’s city centre – instead of on the outskirts – is the right one. Creating new commercial density with an anchor attraction and associated development is a bold but necessary investment move.

 

In this instance, the adage “if you build it, they will come” actually rings true. Moreover it’s not just about visitor numbers but having the economic benefit of more people living and working in the city.

 

We have to proceed responsibly, matching vision with values.

 

Many of the public health reforms introduced in this country came about through tackling the squalor and disease that beset crowded localities. Nowadays, it’s as much about addressing inequalities as health needs.

 

Social planning has to keep pace with project-led initiatives like City Deal. Otherwise we simply exchange one type of disadvantage for another.

 

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Playing games with democracy

 

 I recently did a quick, non-scientific check of how many online bookmakers think a general election in 2019 is an odds-on scenario. The answer is, all of them.

 

I’m guessing Boris Johnson is looking at the same figures and has probably come to the same conclusion - that the chances of an outright win with a working majority are negligible.

 

Hence, we can assume, the move to suspend parliament prior to the UK's scheduled departure from the EU on 31 October.

 

The prime minister is clearly worried at how opposition leaders are beginning to think strategically rather than tactically. The use of parliamentary procedure to deny his government the option of a no-deal Brexit being a case in point.

With the prospect of a dazzling Queens Speech, we can probably expect more moves and counter-moves as things progress.

 

But the fact remains that playing games with democracy can have dangerous consequences – for everyone.

 

 

 

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