Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

We need 'can-do' attitude to rescue our town centres

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan

A boarded-up shop is a sad sight. It's ugly, of course, but more than that, it represents the death of someone's hopes and aspirations: their attempt to start something new of their own, or to keep an old family business going, now ended in failure, loss and empty pockets.

A fifth of shops in some Northern Ireland town centres are now lying empty. That means that we have not only the highest vacancy rate in the UK, but twice the national average.

All of which adds up to a gloomy, shut-up feeling that is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. The only thing which is even worse, in my view, are the fake shop-fronts which certain councils have seen fit to plaster over vacant properties.

It's like a cruel parody of a thriving business and a callous attempt to mask the impoverished reality of the situation, rather than actually doing something about it.

But don't worry, friends, our lousy old high streets will soon be but a distant memory, because Stormont Environment Minister Mark H Durkan is on the case.

He wants to transform town centres, giving these areas priority when deciding where to site future shops and he hopes to achieve this by shortening and simplifying wider planning policies.

A noble plan, but we need a hell of a lot more than the implementation of new strategic planning policy statements, however much they may excite Mr Durkan and his advisers.

We need to round up all the petty bureaucrats in this bastion of municipal small-mindedness that we call home and dump them in the nearest recycling centre.

This is Northern Ireland: Rules 'R' Us. The dumber, the more arbitrary and arcane, the better. Forget the flags row, they should simply write 'Thou Shalt Not' on a bit of material and fly it above every council building in the place, 365 days a year. I'm sure it's a slogan they could all get behind.

Last week, I took part in a conference in Belfast, organised by Place, the built environment centre, called Vacant to Vibrant. It was about bringing life and energy back to our cities, towns and villages, making them into places where people are happy to live, work and play.

Fittingly enough, it was held at the old Strand cinema in east Belfast, now a not-for-profit arts centre. Speakers included Wayne Hemingway, founder of the legendary fashion label Red or Dead. I liked Wayne. This was not a man who was going to dole out some woolly, patronising advice then waft off back to his design atelier.

Hemingway started with no money and a market stall in Camden, on the old DIY punk premise of 'Have a go and make something of it'. And he did. He made the important point that saving shops shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of reinvigorating our town centres. That's a lesson we definitely need to learn here in Northern Ireland, with our obsession with 'retail-led regeneration'. There's a lot more to life than shopping.

In the same spirit of 'can do', Hemingway urged conference participants to challenge the stupid bureaucracy that holds them back. Which is why I got an email the next day from Celia Spouncer, who has taken over part of the old Narrows hotel and restaurant on the waterfront in Portaferry.

She and her family moved into the derelict, boarded-up building more than a year ago, with the intention of transforming it into a boutique guesthouse and micro-dairy. "I am working my nuts off, trying to do something for regeneration, local sustainability at grass-roots level," says Celia. But – surprise, surprise – she's been thwarted by the same rules-is-rules mentality which stymies so many hopeful projects in this part of the world.

Celia wants to access regeneration funding to paint the prominent exterior of the building, but, because she has taken the boards off the property's windows, it is no longer deemed derelict and so the prospect of funding is automatically denied.

All around her, empty buildings are getting spruced up on the outside, but still left crumbling, while her own place, occupied and brimming with potential for the community, is left untouched.

Where is the reward for creativity? Where's the reward for innovation and imagination? Something is radically wrong if the system suppresses positive change, rather than enables it.

Perhaps, at some point, local officials will realise the dire consequences of their petty rule-mongering.

Until then, we'll just keep doing what we do best here in Northern Ireland: papering over the cracks.

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