The attitude that cars are the enemy helps explain why high streets are dying on their feet, writes Paul Finch
It is 25 years since John Gummer, as environment secretary, famously banned out-of-town shopping in favour of strengthening city centres and high street environments. That policy was as welcome as it was unexpected, since it marked the rejection of hollowed-out city centres on the US model in favour of a more traditional notion of the European city as a place of social engagement, not simply where you did your shopping. There was also an implicit critique of a society becoming increasingly dependent on the private car.
How curious that the rise and rise of internet shopping (and web-based transport providers like Uber) has resulted in more traffic on our streets, not less; that high streets seem to be under as much threat as familiar store names like Debenhams and House of Fraser; and that retail parks resembling shopping malls show few signs of diminishing. It only goes to show that, when it comes to planning, you can only do your best with the available evidence. It is unwise to try to second-guess history – we might note that internet shopping is only a new form of what mail order companies invented in the 19th century.
One certainty, however, is that retail opportunities and pitfalls almost inevitably involve an attitude to the car and to parking, on which subject we have been pursuing contradictory policies for as long as cars have existed. It is sometimes forgotten that the first out-of-town shopping centres, developed in Los Angeles in the 1920s, were a response to severe parking restrictions established by municipal authorities, heavily swayed by the railroad interest. Bans on street parking led first to the innovation of multi-storey car parks, then, inexorably, to the idea of building malls, where drivers were welcomed, rather than vilified.
Providing facilities for cyclists creates congestion, pollution and frustration for drivers who are the ones paying for the unoccupied cycle lanes
The attitude that cars are enemies helps to explain why high streets and secondary or tertiary shopping areas in UK towns and cities are dying on their feet. Street parking is treated as a form of social leprosy, while the surface car parks supplied by supermarket chains are assumed to be a social good, even if they result in independent shopkeepers being driven out of business. And when will large-scale supermarkets build homes on top of them, as proposed by Bill Dunster? What are they waiting for?
In popular city areas, of course, councils allow parking but charge rates that mean meters are earning close to, if not exceeding, hourly minimum wages. Add to that the nutty policy of letting local authorities keep fines for overstaying on a meter or venturing into box junctions cynically designed to trap the unwary and you have simultaneous encouragement and discouragement, an affront to rational traffic planning.
You might also add the scandalous waste of money, at least in parts of London, of providing free facilities for the white ‘mamil’ population (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra) which creates congestion, pollution and frustration for drivers who are the ones paying for the unoccupied cycle lanes. (By the way, cyclist trolls, I am not on Twitter, so you can stick any poisonous responses to your Brooks saddle and sit on them.)
Our schizophrenic attitude to cars, parking and retail explain the desperation with which the owners of Heathrow wish to expand. I was reminded by a former local authority planning officer last week that the Terminal 5 planning inspector’s report said that approval should only be given on the basis that the airport would expand no further. Let’s face it, Terminal 5 probably wouldn’t have happened without its retail accompaniment, airports being an example of out-of-town shopping centres which cleverly side-step John Gummer’s planning policy. Bigger airports equal more retail rental. They do, of course, have ample parking.