Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Bad things come in threes

Further evidence of the decline of civilisation arrived in three cheery chunks this week.  You have to understand that it’s only a decline in my male, blinkered, ageing, slightly pessimistic terms, but I’m extrapolating that out to many other male, blinkered, ageing and slightly pessimistic people who are likely to view such dim news with equal dismay.

Firstly, the enormous palace of joy that was 150 Oxford Street has closed down.  There was once a time back – as people of my age refer – ‘in the day’ when a long trip from the provinces to the capital of the country was made even more worthwhile by the possibility of a few precious minutes in the worlds biggest record store.  I refer, of course, to HMV.  The sprawling wonder of three floors of imports, rarities, racks of records by exotic sounding bands, live performances, guest signings, staff recommendations and the head-thumping confusion brought on by not remembering in its entirety the list of stuff you were going to look for is no more.  Some will point to the new HMV at 363 Oxford Street but I’ve been there and it’s an embarrassment in comparison.  I’ve written about HMV and it’s place in my psyche before, so I shalln’t moan about it again here (and I’m forgetting that young people don’t make day trips to London from the provinces any more, as they usually have to stay as it’s the only place where work exists).

Secondly, and in related news, I had a lovely day off work on Tuesday for various reasons but found myself on Tottenham Court Road with time to kill.  Whilst my wife wandered off to Liberty, I said I’d go and browse in Fopp on Gower Street.  I know that Fopp is essentially HMV with a different badge but it has become a reliable little place to go where music is prioritised, classic albums are sold at a reasonable price and new stuff – and not just Top 40 fodder – is readily available for sale.  They take time and effort to provide recommendations and the stores are generally cosy and well frequented.  Of course, in this cynical world, I arrived to find the branch had closed 11 days ago (albeit because host store Waterstones wanted its space back, but all the same a light has gone out).

Third, and still on the subject of music and its importance to me (hey, it’s my blog, and I can be selfish and pretend the world revolves around me), the BBC website today speculated on the demise of the iPod.  As it happens, I’m in the market for a new iPod as – in a Christmas washing up related incident – I shorted mine out .  For me, an iPod is pretty essential.  It has a reliable battery, plenty of storage space to allow me to have whatever music I want at my fingertips without being reliant on a download or a wifi connection and space for podcasts.  In looking for a replacement, I’ve examined other models – the nano, the shuffle and the iTouch, but all have too little memory thus allowing too little choice, the touch is basically an iPhone without call making capacity, the shuffle allows no control at all and the iPhone carries so many apps and photos that anything else is sidelined.  It has to be an iPod Classic (and they used to do a handy 80GB model, but now only a 160MB model, so having a big gap in memory capabilities in Apple models).  But sadly, I’m in the minority again and it seems even when it comes to recent technology I’m a Luddite.

I do wonder where it’s all going.  With the demise of the high street – which I also seem to be on my own about – and the loss of all the things I actually enjoy from modern life, I wonder where everyone else gets their entertainment from.  I’m sure it can’t be the god-awful selection of TV we have (something else that’s deteriorated with the advent of choice) and it seems people don’t want to read, or listen to music or go out and shop or play in the street, or send a card or give their kids a day out beyond the interior of a McDonalds or Starbucks.

Well I did get some insight from Stylist magazine on the journey home this evening – a magazine so vital that people can’t be arsed to carry it off a train; a magazine so absolutely essential it has to tell women what to wear with hiking boots (it demands ‘key wardrobe decisions’, fact fans).  This, according to Stylist, is what we’re all doing.  This is what we fought for; this is what all those time saving devices that gave us all that free time have lead us to.  This is why the things I enjoy are being sacrificed.  Welcome to the future.  Goodbye World.

 

 

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Milton Keynes – I like it. Honest.

In Milton Keynes, the seats light up.

It took me a very long time to like Milton Keynes. I almost wrote ‘love’ then, but I thought better of it. I do like it, but I don’t love it. I love Krakow for the town square and rambling central streets; I love San Francisco for the bay and for retro coffee shops; I love London for the feeling that anything could happen at any moment to make the day memorable. I really can’t think of anything I love Milton Keynes for; it wouldn’t be any of those things I just mentioned though, obviously.

Milton Keynes is geometric.  Amazon is based there.  It has concrete cows. It’s completely dominated by cars, and pedestrians are pushed under subways. It all looks identical when you’re in the centre, and out on the roads, you’ll see cut grass road verges but no houses. You’ll get lost in the shopping centre because it’s very confusing. It takes years of practise to even cope with that. Don’t cycle anywhere because it’s totally indecipherable. Even though they started with a clean bit of paper, the town centre is a long uphill walk from the station.  Even the name, Milton Keynes, has nothing to do with anyone worthy, like Milton or, er, Keynes.

But despite all that, I still like it. I first went to Milton Keynes in 1993. I’d passed through it on the train before then, which is often the best way to see new towns. But, in 1993, I had to get off. It was a hot day in July, and I was whisked from the station, along H6 (did I mention all the major roads are ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ and numbered) to one of the villages right on the edge that’s yet to be engulfed by the city. Give it time.

And over the next 12 years, I went back, and went back, and went back – not, it has to be said, by choice. I gradually realised that – despite the utter confusion I felt for about seven of those years; despite the lack of a coherent bus service; despite the theatre being parked 400 metres across a windswept car park from the shops; despite having a town centre park so divorced from the town centre I never ventured in it, despite having a phoney football team that nods to south London (and is actually in Bletchley) and despite the silly hippy names for many of the roads – people like living there.

On the whole, Milton Keynes – MK if you want to be cool (ish) – is thoroughly charming, very clean, has very little congestion despite all the cars, has a great Council and has pretty much everything you could ever want or need in it or near it. People flock there and stay there. It’s utterly bland and totally unchallenging and therein lies its charm, because it at least had a damn good shot at being neither. It’s like a slightly tipsy, untrendy dad, showing you pictures of how it used to be in the seventies and how it had a long beard and was centre of attention and had gyro-copters flying round. And now here it is, all cords and slippers and dozing off in front of the telly at 9.30.

And really, despite how it sounds, I really like Milton Keynes.

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Is the high street doomed?

Yesterday (January 2, 2014), two local businesses in the southern part of the London Borough of Enfield announced that they would be closing this month.  The businesses have much in common – they are both independent stores, they both sell goods for the home or for celebration (gifts and cards), both have only been trading for five years or less and both are run and managed by outstanding young, female entrepreneurs who have collected multiple awards during their trading period.  The announcements lead to an outpouring of sadness, disappointment and frustration on social media that such innovative and unique shops are disappearing from their respective town centres.  The shops in question are Ruby Blu in Southgate and Papylon in Winchmore Hill.

I’m in an interesting position here to assess this rather depressing turn of events.  For one thing, both of these shops have supported my own venture, London Letters, by taking and selling my greeting cards.  I know that both shops are supportive of local artists and manufacturers where they are able, and are active in their communities.  As a consumer, I have supported both shops by buying from them.  And now, as I’ve recently gone back into the town planning, I find myself collating ideas together to help my employer comment on ways to ‘create a vibrant town centre moving beyond a traditional offer’ as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.

The Red Tape Challenge was launched by the Cabinet Office in April 2011.  It addresses the idea that, whilst some regulation is necessary and beneficial, over the years it – and the ‘inspection and bureaucratic regimes’ that go alongside it – have ‘piled up and up’.  The Government believes that unnecessary regulation has constrained business, damaged the economy and discouraged people from getting involved in their communities.  It wants to remove regulation and both allow freedom and show trust to enable people to, ‘do the right thing’.

It’s difficult to tell how much the idea has set the world alight – the official Twitter feed last posted in August 2013 to its 753 followers and the website states that the process will last until April 2013, though it’s still very much open today.  The current call for evidence concerns the ‘regulatory burden’ affecting town centres. 

I wondered whether there was any mileage in looking at the response on social media to the announcement of the closure of these two shops that might help with my efforts to understand where the regulatory burdens might actually be that could feed into my response.  There are limitations in doing this – it’s unscientific, subjective and I don’t actually know the real reasons for these shops closing – but it might provide pointers that give an indication of the underlying problems that a cross section of society sees with town centres and the smaller, independent traders trying to exist on the high street.

It came as no real surprise to me that regulation barely features as a cited problem facing traders on the high street.  Even if it was, I’m not convinced that fiddling with it would help town centres.  In fact, I don’t even think that the Government is fully appreciative of the range of problems facing town centres to suggest that reducing regulation is one way to save them. 

Significant concerns expressed related to the state of the economy and competition from the larger high street retailers and operators. Town centres need attractions to bring people into them – a diverse offer and a safe environment with decent transport and available parking is part of that.  Whilst retail parks and out of centre shopping centres continue to offer this, town centres have failed to keep pace.  This is about infrastructure– the size and shape of retail units, the clean and dry environment, the way that parking is managed and charged for.  It’s also partly down to those large companies that own and manage retail parks and shopping centres, pitted against the public authorities that are trying to make town centres attractive with meagre resources and means available to them and diverse ownerships and interests to manage compared with the more straightforward task faced at purpose built shopping centres. 

Clearly people feel that rising food, energy, fuel and housing prices against a backdrop of relative decrease in wages puts pressure on household budgets. Larger companies have economies of scale and can offer cheaper goods, bought in bulk.  Supermarkets can offer a wide range of food and non-food goods and can also offer these online because people know who they are and what they offer.  New, unknown companies will find it hard to compete online against well-known brands.  Further, those supermarkets have infiltrated the high street in a micro form, making it more difficult for the diversity needed in individual town centres to flourish.  At a time of austerity, people need to find the basics quickly and easily and at a good price; many people find they are less time-rich than they were and that there’s not the time to browse the local shops and support the independents.  Needs must.

Of course, the internet offers a realistic alternative to the high street.  Many people are internet savvy and the internet allows easy comparison of prices and an increasing reliability in terms of delivery and quality.  The high street appears to be increasingly left with those businesses that can’t operate online – hair salons, nail bars, coffee shops, estate agents – and those preying on the less well-off elements of society – charity shops, betting shops and money lenders where, ironically, a relaxation of regulation has made it easier to set them up.  It means that the physical environment for independent stores and competitive attractors in town centres is constrained by the public purse and by the nature of businesses willing to take space on the traditional high street.

Many of the comments received also focus on the high rents, utility charges and business rates faced by smaller traders, and on the lack of support available to start-up businesses to allow them to set up and then flourish on the high street.  They comment on how town centre parking is either too strictly enforced or regulated by Councils who are perceived to see the motorist as an easy revenue stream, or too sparse to warrant a trip to it for fear of being unable to park, something which is also seen to affect any passing trade.

All of these and more could be factors in the closure of these two shops.  What was clear is that there is a sizeable proportion of the population who do value the high street as a place to shop, meet and provide a focus for their community, and ideas for improving this were also discussed.  These included stronger networks between businesses, business owners and their communities (including schools) which could act as a basis for mutual support; the possibility of shorter or rolling leases for town centre units and the splitting up of larger units for a number of different traders which might offer community functions as well as retail and commercial space (but may be tripped up by uncooperative landlords), and better public transport, which addresses some of the problems associated with parking costs and parking spaces.

What is clear is that the solution for town centres is going to be hard – if not impossible – to find, and that tweaks to regulation are certainly not the answer alone.

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