There are a number of strategies that can breathe life into a dying town. Sadly, the bozos of Walsall council cabinet seem to think that the resuscitation of a stagnant local economy will come about by building a multi-storey car park. The plot, along with any credibility, has clearly been lost.
Figures published by the Local Data Company suggest that one in four shops in Walsall town centre lies empty making Walsall the seventh worst town in the country for vacant retail units. Portfolio holder responsible for degeneration, councillor Adrian Andrew was quick to rubbish the data as “potentially misleading”. Lumping in warehouse and office accommodation, he claims that vacant shops represent only 20 per cent of capacity. Presumably this includes the horticultural goings on at an empty carpet warehouse not a million miles from the cabinet table and the empty rooms above empty shops containing imaginary illegal immigrants being offered postal votes in council elections.
Interestingly, the Tory regeneration member for Pheasey Park Farm suggests that the good news is that the figure of one in five empty shops is nearer to what passes for truth in this sorry borough. This is a little like asking the captain of the Titanic if he would like ice in his gin and tonic.
It is surprising that straw-clutching, blue sky thinking denialist councillor Andrew did not point out that Wolverhampton has 27.3 per cent vacant shops compared to Walsall’s meagre 26.9 per cent making Wolverhampton the fifth worst retail experience in this nation of shopkeepers. Bottom of the heap are Dudley and West Bromwich. It is good to know that a long wait and a short bus journey can convey us to other dying towns using a dying public transport system. The growth regenerating czar then offered a list of businesses who have upped sticks and left town realising that in the hands of the current administration, Walsall is a basket case. But, be of good cheer. HS2 means that we can travel from London Euston to Darlaston in three days rather than four.
Rather than the familiar drone of blaming the previous government, Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, Paul Uppal has concocted an ingenious rationale that blames charities for the retail blight in town and city centres. Chuggers, it seems, are turning people away from high streets. If you have never heard of chuggers, they are the people who shake collection tins for the likes of Macmillan Nurses, Lifeboats, Air Ambulances and a variety of other worthy causes and are, seemingly, the very basis of Cameron’s Big Society. Mr Uppal wants them banished from the streets. Extensive research involving asking a few of his mates, has convinced the successor to Enoch Powell than chuggers are a bigger problem than extortionate parking charges. Powell died 14 years ago today. If you have never heard of Paul Uppal, you are not alone.
The good and the great around the cabinet table in Walsall will, no doubt, take note of this new excuse for failure. Hmm…charities. That’s good. Yeah, with everyone hard up let’s encourage them to kick beggars. Any other ideas? What? A multi-storey car park? Brilliant. Let’s vote to increase our allowances.
Parking in Walsall town centre is a disaster. Having been out smarted by supermarket giants offering free parking, the nice little earner of council run car parks is a golden goose that now needs therapy and the possible attention of a crash trauma team. As ever with this incompetent cabinet, there is very little in detail, transparency, consultation, accountability or common sense. Scratching in the dirt for anything that remotely resembles a plan, our civic leaders say a multi-storey car park is now the answer.
No site has been identified, no costing proposal has been formulated, no time scale is offered. The need for private sector investment is mentioned as is the possibility of selling off council car parks that are “underused”. The mighty intellect that is Mike Bird, who incidentally made his money by specialising in insolvency, said: “We have got car parks in areas that are no longer used.” Does that mean the car park or the area? An underused car park because of empty shops or empty shops because of an underused car park? It’s difficult to know which came first, the chicken or the golden egg.
Cabinet meet tonight (Wednesday) to discuss, amongst other things, the “redevelopment” of the Old Square shopping centre. The proposal is to hand over the land to property developers Zurich Assurance who will then evict and pay off the current landowners and businesses. For good measure, a huge chunk of space used by market stalls will disappear. The genius of this strategy is that we will be able to enjoy yet another supermarket and, joy of joys, Primark. Should cabinet wish to see supermarket regeneration in action, a quick stroll along nearby George Street will reveal a row of boarded up shops in the shadow of Asda.
There are, however, a number of other strategies that can breathe life into a dying town. Sensible parking charges and the dismissal of a private enforcement company intent on profit rather than service. Waiving business rates for the first year of any new small retail enterprise. Start up grants and, if necessary, loans to small retailers and an end to bowing the knee to multi-national high street giants and property developers. Encourage a diversity of retail outlets that bases a local economy on more than supermarkets, pound shops and purveyors of junk food.
Walsall cabinet, along with other local authorities and the likes of Paul Uppal MP, should have a quiet word with Gideon Osborne and request an immediate cut to the rate of VAT, the reversal of sacking public sector workers who will now be forced onto benefit rather than paying taxes and buying stuff and, if they have the backbone, tell the Chancellor and his millionaire friends to pay their own taxes.
If these radical ideas seem alien to Bird, Andrew and Uppal, perhaps the should consider it as a PFI outsourcing deal with the public. They provide the shops, parking and transport infrastructure and we spend money. It might just work, unlike the ruinous deals with APCOA, Amey and Tarmac.
There is, though, one PFI scam that will induce tremors around the cabinet table. Whisper the name Serco and our civic masters will retreat to a darkened room, place a blanket over their heads, reach for the Prozac and wonder if their reserved parking space in front of the Council House will still be there in May.
Cabinet will discuss the mess left by Serco behind locked doors, well away from the irritating attention of those made to pay the bill. It could be a good night for Prozac shareholders.