We took this photo of a street in Reading recently. Compare it with the depressing state of Camberley’s High Street.
No single organisation can reshape our High Street. Rather, its future depends on several groups of people. Each of these groups needs to have a clear vision of how they would like the street to evolve, otherwise it will continue to suffer from neglect. However, no agreed vision – something precise, and of more practical use than generalities – has yet emerged.
THE BOROUGH COUNCIL. The borough council has, indeed, made an attempt to shape the High Street. In various documents it has said that the aim is to preserve the Victorian and Edwardian character. So no stainless steel and glass buildings. The council has also described what the shop fronts should look like. So far so good. But the council’s ‘promises’ of more than a decade have made virtually no progress.
THE COUNTY COUNCIL. We’re not aware of any SCC plans. Maybe there’s a policy of maintaining the roadway and pavement in a good state, and of reducing street clutter, but we’ve not seen anything more specific. And actual standards ‘on the ground’ are poor.
INDIVIDUAL RETAILERS. We don’t recall ANY retailer in the High Street sticking their head above the parapet and expressing a view in public. Why not – aren’t they interested? Shouldn’t they be vitally concerned? Regrettably, however, some retailers and landlords seem to put limited effort into maintenance.
COLLECTIVELY CAMBERLEY (a formal body that “allows the business community and local authorities to work together to improve the local trading environment”.) Have we missed something here? Whilst we’d not decry the very pleasant hanging baskets and floral displays that have appeared each year, these are of no great lasting benefit. We’d have expected an organisation whose stated objective is to improve the local trading environment to have a more visible strategic stance.
RESIDENTS. Some moan about the state of the town, many complain about unsatisfactory car parking, but plenty still visit the town centre shops, especially at Christmas time. However, there have been no substantial and constructive views put forward by them as a whole.
THE EASY ACTIONS. Why not attend to all the obvious and easy things from the drooping television aerials that can’t possibly still work to broken rainwater downpipes that flood the pavement when it rains? Get rid of the grass and weeds growing in roof gutters. Work with neighbouring shops to implement some form of coordinated paint scheme. Not necessarily the SAME colour throughout, but eye-catching contrasting and cheerful colours. Repair the broken blinds over the shop window. Nothing too expensive, for there’s lots of low-hanging fruit.
THE BIGGER CHALLENGE. Collectively Camberley needs to be much more proactive. A coordinated approach is essential – if just a few retailers take action, there’ll be limited effect, and they’ll just be wasting their money.
The borough council should also get off its backside and deliver the ‘pedestrian improvements’ that it’s talked about for so long. OF COURSE traffic should be banned from the High Street at times when there are lots of shoppers about. We know about the ‘delivery problem’ to some shops – but how many shops take roadside deliveries on a Saturday afternoon? It’s a safe bet that there’s never been a survey, that there are no actual figures, and that the delivery problem is greatly overstated.
The county council needs to be chased. The street doesn’t have to be lined with gold, but it does need to be free of tripping hazards and unsightly patchworks of tarmac, cement and uneven paving blocks.
Which, finally, brings us to the residents. We need to get our act together and make practical suggestions. They’ve got to be viable, so wishful thinking isn’t really good enough. (It’s fine to have a vision, but unless there’s a way of achieving it, it’s of limited value. If the aim is to acquire lots of independent shops or a John Lewis, the key issue to address is ‘HOW?’.) We know that this is a challenging subject, and it’s easy to just give up and find something else to do, so we’re under no illusions. BUT THE EYE IS AN OBVIOUS FORUM FOR GATHERING GOOD IDEAS – USE IT!
WHO SHOULD LEAD? Easy. The retailers have most to lose, and they’ll have to dig into their pockets at least a little to make anything really happen. So they should run the show. Not individually – that would be unworkable – but collectively. As in Collectively Camberley. It would be silly NOT to involve the borough council too, as planning issues are bound to crop up, and maybe the council can provide at least some financial support. The county council can stay on the sidelines – it just needs to be TOLD to do better. Lastly, should the residents be involved? Yes – involved, not merely ‘consulted’. It’s their town, after all. And if they don’t like what’s proposed, they’ll just go elsewhere.