“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”
Journey to Wisbech at certain times of the day and it appears to be a continuous stream of traffic delays punctuated by monstrous retail and industrial development. This is not a critique of the need for industry but the absolute neglect of the aesthetics, or the impact on human behaviour. It is a while since the approach to Wisbech, along Cromwell Road, to this “Georgian market town” could in any way be described as picturesque but seemingly all has been surrendered now. The existing retail parks, with no attempt to conceal their branded gaudiness, nestled alongside a few industrial units of old and factories of new, have never offered either a enticement or taste of what Wisbech might offer. But now the scene is truly set, we are to appear to the unacquainted as, “Toryville within the County of Anywhere“.
The debate on the long-term benefit or otherwise of an outsized (in relation to the size of the town) retail park on the peripheral of a market town is concluded, certainly so far as Wisbech is concerned. When the gargantuan Tesco opening its doors dice was set, maybe loaded, for the games ahead. Perhaps in the years ahead we may become a case study, and maybe there might be some political jousting in the months ahead, but it is built and from the size of the investment, the metric tonnage of concrete aside, it is staying. My objection to Tesco is that it was not a simple re-development, it opened up another retail park which many months later units remain empty and therefore proving there was no business case just speculative profit being sought (perhaps a contributory factor to Tesco’s fortunes).
“Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective:
it has to be shattered before being ascertained.”
I remain genuinely surprised that this has happened with the apparent willing consent of the majority. What has happened to the town is a result of people either voting for or else abdicating to the political decisions. Similarly we cannot ignore the shopping habits of many – and a slow circle of despair as investment and spend left the High Street so did more customers. But surely there is the realisation that it is a deliberate political choice not to invest and support town centre but rather embrace the resources and will of corporate retail and investment.
Whilst I hope that it delivers the profit and quality of life which it promises, and that the overall cost is accepted as a “price worth paying” – perhaps something to mull over when sitting amidst the additional traffic congestion. You will already have noted dear reader I remain sceptical towards the very core of both the principles and the means of delivery of this project.
The Mask of Janus
For decades the economy of Wisbech has been nurtured to provide large numbers of low-skill and low-wage workers for benefit of agricultural, manufacturing and now seemingly service industries. To support the demand for labour, in a town which is poorly served by the national road network, and had no rail connection, there has been a considerable reliance on migrants who have been actively encouraged to relocate. This is not new phenomena, although the scale of the issue has increased in line with the demand and the relaxation of immigration rules a decade ago.
The dichotomy is that the Tories, whilst claiming to represent the interests of small business, have actively engaged in the pursuit of Corporatism to address the socio-economic problems. They have actively pursued a strategy of attracting the large-scale employers of farming, factories and now corporate retail to provide employment, as well as the main source of goods and services. This has led to a ‘dependency culture’ where people continually expect others (usually government but in this case Tesco) to sort out problems for them – and when one of these giants changes direction, often with the loss of many jobs, the impact on the town is calamitous.
“Never trust any complicated cocktail that remains perfectly clear until the last ingredient goes in, and then immediately clouds.”
Even if you hold no respect for our local heritage, for a population size with the issues of only consideration of inadequate housing stock and poor transport links the pursuit of a more mixed economy would seem to provide the better response supporting steady organic growth.
Like the perfect Martini, our local economy should be thoughtfully mixed; promoting a balance of mutually supporting enterprises of all scales and nature. The phrase ‘thinking out of the box’ has been greatly over-used but is a perfect direction to what has been missing for too long from our local plans.
Waiting for the snowdrops….
“So many fail because they don’t get started – they don’t go. They don’t overcome inertia. They don’t begin.”
With the ending of the construction works we must view it that winter has finished. We must review the damage of metaphorical fallen trees, bedraggled hedges and filled ditches, and start to plan for the spring. But we cannot afford any more idle, for the sign of Snowdrops or other potency of fortune. Work must begin in earnest for this farm has been neglected for far too long.
The immediate issue must be for the remaining retail and services in the marketplace (is this now “old marketplace” and is “old marketplace” now perhaps ancient?), as well as what remains of a much diminished and sometimes maligned open-air market. If it were within my grasp, the few crumbs provided by the Corporates and the “money men” in compensation – proffered up as “goodwill” – would be invested in a number of schemes for the town centre already identified but lacking funding. It will take some time for the full impact of the new development to be fully realised, but we should not wait a moment longer…let us declare that spring has arrived.
I argue, as I have done on many occasions previously, that the recent history of the town centre – by trying to contend with larger retail locations – would only lead to failure. Is it not recognised wisdom – for the smaller towns especially – that it is the unique selling point (USP) which succeeds. Heritage, culture and local produce should be at the core of the economic and social plans for a market town if you are genuine about it as an aspiration. It must now certainly be the core of the revitalisation.
“Ethical decisions ensure that everyone’s best interests are protected. When in doubt, don’t.”
Of course there may be room for both the Corporates and independent traders, but it should be based upon mutual benefit – between capital and community. But without a framework of principles to work within the natural appetite of many Corporates is the consumption of the whole market. We should welcome partners who work ethically and share the values of our town, but the deal should not be based on “one off” payments. It would be for the Town Council to ensure that any national chains “signed up” to a Charter which clearly states the aims and values of our town epitomised by the stated beliefs of the many great and enlightened people of our town past.
I would like to see a town centre that promotes local art and produce. A cultural hub that properly celebrates the heritage and local heroes for both resident and visitor alike. We must incentivise business and traders to celebrate and promote what our town is, at it’s best. We have the raw materials and the talent to create something special but we continue to miss the infrastructure and the civic leadership to take the whole town forward.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”
It is all very well to hold heightened aspirations but it will take the “many” to invest if the direction and pervading culture of the town centre is to change. I earnestly believe this is the lead role of the local authorities but also those leading business and community people who are willing to be heard. Even once a plan is decided it will take maybe years to meet the objective sufficiently for an identity to have been forged.
The first step is to undertake whatever practical changes can be, this will include the simple measures like parking, signage, identity, public art and management and promotion of public events. There must also be a determined drive to challenge the empty and empty buildings. A Business Improvement District (BID) would be one such vehicle for delivery these changes, others models are available. Personally I do not hold much faith in the much heralded 2020Vision strategy https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/when-is-a-horse-an-ass/ but perhaps it might provide a political vessel?
“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon.”
There is much negative energy derived from the empty and discarded buildings (and this must include the showboat that is The Boathouse) but surely the potential energy stored up is something to harness now. There will be some landlords willing to open up and negotiate, to encourage “pop up” shops and occasional indoor events, and others who will need to be enticed or perhaps at some stage robustly challenged.
Above all else let’s engage now with the people who can change things now, the entrepreneurs and maybe those who might today only hold a good idea. Let us help facilitate those looking for partners to share premises and resources to connect.
We are roughly an hour’s drive from Cambridge. With some investment https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/why-we-need-public-transport-and-why-we-all-should-pay-for-it/ we could offer affordable but unique premises, including the promise of high-speed broadband. Once the political will is transformed into a programme improvements made to road and hopefully rail add further value to the proposition.
We should want to promote a central culture of mutualism from all the businesses of the town, for the benefit of the town, but also we are perfectly placed to encourage a culture of support and encouragement of Start Up. This could be a way to tie in with local schools and businesses too providing both opportunity and experience by future generations. Many first-time Start Up founders might struggle to devote time and energy to define their culture – how helpful if there was already in place a Charter for the town that defined the principles and objectives.
“We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
W. H. Auden
An enterprise culture is made up of enterprising people who are prepared to challenge existing ways of doing things, and to come up with new ideas and solutions to the benefit of society as a whole. An organisation (or community) might be said to have an enterprise culture when its employees (or stakeholders) are imaginative and creative, not restrained by “culture” or unnecessary bureaucracy. This should not defer an ethical business model or co-operative approach. In both pursuit and support, it is the responsibility of the local authority to seek and apply funding to provide infrastructure to facilitate; and political leadership to inspire and challenge as necessary.
When I refer to “culture” I mean the typical way of behaving within the organisation (or community). I would suggest that the prevailing culture in the town centre today is one of 30 years ago. Many businesses are closed early afternoon and certainly by 5pm, and many still hold an “early closing” day. The reasons for what might be described as a malaise will be many and complex but the result is what in large part has persuaded many people that the town centre does not meet their needs. The resulting retreating footfall diminishes incomes and profits further in a circle of despair.
In contrast an organisation with an enterprise culture is one where people are imaginative and creative, rather than being reluctant to take risks and invest. Many of the most successful businesses in modern times are defined by the ‘enterprise culture’. Whilst the best known brands will be large companies now, most spectators agree that their growth and success is due to their embracing of enterprise and innovation. I have written these lines before, but all of the examples we know can be applied to all areas of work and endeavour…but you do need vision and leadership from atop, and enjoy the widest possible support and engagement from the whole community.
In larger organisations, and from my own personal experience this is particularly the case within the public sector, there is a significant risk that a structure emerges which stifles enterprise. It can be the pull of stability, or it might simply be driven by the selfish pursuit and reward by a small group of individuals. Sadly, once established it is then a case of a revolving scene of re-organisations and other “cost-saving” measures to pursue a reduction of costs and or increase of profits, rather than continued innovation.
One solution is to empower people, to promote a team approach whereby they are encouraged to make decisions for themselves but within the framework of principles, objectives and targets of the organisation. Being enterprising involves being prepared to take risks and to ‘think out of the box’ in developing solutions to problems. One of the vehicles for delivering this is in the wider community sense is Social Enterprise https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/?s=social+enterprise on which I have written previously.
“If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing. You can’t buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.”
Communication and branding is essential in today’s marketplace. Tell everyone what you value, why you value it, and make sure you actively follow through by acting by your principles. A Charter would be a public statement of your intent, a reference point and a symbol which can be readily used and share through all your media and communications. It can provide a link and a focus for all of the local businesses but more importantly it provides an authentic and unique identity for the town.
Many organisations have core values, it seems to be a “tick box” standard which they don’t really commit to. If you really want to know the true values held by an organisation look at the decisions management makes, how it makes or spends it’s money when lots of money, risk, and it responds to problems. Let us write a Charter for our town, and let’s hold everyone accountable for following it.
“Diversity in the world is a basic characteristic of human society, and also the key condition for a lively and dynamic world as we see today.”
We must embrace our diversity. I have written previously on migration https://deanlreeves.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/we-will-only-succeed-together/ and whether you welcome it or not it is a reality so deal with it. There is no going back and if we do not embrace the change it holds back the community but also opportunity – the investment we seek will not follow if it considered there are endemic social problems or that large parts of the customer base are disengaged. You may have a profitable business but eventually failing to positively engage with your community with affect growth. A lack of diversity within your organisation will similarly only push you against that same well of stagnation.
Many of the current ventures within the town centre are owned and managed by migrants. Some have made political capital from this, some have believed the slogans, and a small minority have used it to reinforce their own racist views. In simple terms – the High Street has been abandoned by many, and as a consequence many long standing businesses were not viable. The only shops which can profit are those that serve people without their own transport or those who live closest to the centre. Without the use of these shops over the past few years by East Europeans the town centre would have been truly desolate. I don’t believe we need the number of mini-stores but until there is a plan in place – these people actively contributing to the commercial community and creating jobs too. In my mind it is the economic plan, not migration, behind the root cause of many of the social problems – and yes some of this is derived from political decisions – but answers rest with creating opportunity and wealth.
Remember, and this might provide some comfort, you can share the same values with people different very different from you. A number of studies point to the benefits of diversity in the workplace and how it yields greater performance. Most people crave diversity too, when polled whether people prefer working with a gender diverse team or the same sex, diversity wins. Equally this can be applied to the wider community. The important thing to remember is that workplace culture consists of the values, people and communication of a company; essentially, it forms a community that thrives on the participation of all parties.
“Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that,
but hope and enterprise and change.”
All of what is proposed, and the many variations, will only bear fruit with the active support and participation of the community. Whilst there is a role for politicians to persuade and encourage, this is something for which if there is not even a seed of desire amongst us it will not flourish. Many people speak of wanting a better town but it does not come by accident or “talking”; we all have a contribution to make it happen and then to nourish it.
That a majority of people in the past have chosen the Supermarket Economy by either voting for supporting politicians, or failing to vote at all, is for me a great shame but it is the reality. The town you currently see before you has not happened by accident, it is both the deliberate and the unforeseen consequences of political and personal choices. By the very same measure we can change, we can make it better.