FRANK SOBEY: Changing shape of town centres
WE live in interesting times where change is so rapid that it too often leaves us spinning in the wind.
Perhaps the most obvious recent change has been in the traditional high street and neighbourhood shopping venues.
Ah, you might say, that is simply urban evolution!
But sadly it is, in my opinion, much more than that.
Watching retail guru Mary Portas and David Cameron visiting beleaguered high streets made me want to raise an eyebrow.
As an increasing number of high streets start to look like a dental nightmare with gap after gap appearing, so the level of rhetoric continues to build as everyone seems to have a view.
We hear the clever words and look at exciting initiatives like BID (Business Improvement Districts) hoping that each signals a new horizon.
But you know you can do all you like about street furniture, colourful works of art, lovely flowers while meekly accepting high business rates, crippling rents and aggressive parking charges.
There has been a change, of course, where once vibrant businesses have been replaced by endless charity shops, transient pop up shops, betting shops, takeaways and second hand shops!
That, of course, may not be a bad thing if that is what we all want.
Perhaps we are happy enough to watch town centres change shape and accept the new landscape.
The question has been asked as to whether new town centre is actually the supermarket with free parking on the urban outskirts?
If it is then why should we worry?
Perhaps we should worry because who wants to run the risk of a hurtful parking fine from aggressive meter control policed by ever-vigilant civil enforcement officers while parking in town yet celebrate the free supermarket parking.
These are serious questions for any town but are actually hugely important here on the English Riviera.
We live in a conurbation of three towns on perhaps one of the most stunningly beautiful coastlines in the world.
We cannot allow our town centres to fall over and take with them the tourist industry!
While much of tourism becomes a product of wall-to-wall sunshine our visitors need to be captivated by the shopping experience, whether it is simply buying an ice cream, interesting food or colourful clothing. It's not that complicated is it?
So if we want to make folk celebrate the coastal urban experience then serious work needs to done about the economic infrastructure.
It would be newsworthy to have Mrs Portas and Mr Cameron striding down Torbay Road as a call to action, but part of that action has to be a serious look at those basic business costs dominated by shocking business rates and rents.
For me, those two should underpin any sort of business improvement scheme.
Rents can and have been negotiated locally but business rate change will require Government action.
Getting folk into town centres also requires a willingness to make motorists feel wanted.
If we accept that the out of town supermarkets might have become the new town centres with easy parking then the obvious question has to be asked about car access in the, if you like, old town centres.
Banging on about the tourist offering and then frightening visitors (and residents) with an army of parking attendants waiting to leap upon luckless motorists who overstay their allotted times is, in my opinion, imbecilic.
You either want to welcome folk or you don't.
Seeing the motorist visiting the town centre as a target for increased civic income has to be ultimately very damaging.
Watching visitors argue with the meter man having arrived back a few minutes too late will not do much for the tourism offering does it?
Torbay is the most wonderful place with a coastline that is simply mouth-watering plus lovely harbours dotted around the waters edge.
Certainly something that we all need to celebrate and encourage in any way that we can, but the worry is that poorly thought through policy coupled with expensive charges will let to obvious rot develop.
It will take more than a paintbrush and potted plants to bring new life to the English Riviera.
Although not in the way Mr Cameron intended, we are all in this together and must not let community apathy get too tight a grip.
Rattle the cage and seek for a change in town centre development that is something more than the endless empty rhetoric.
Get hold of the decision makers and state the obvious about business rates in particular before it is too late.
Too much is still being taken from too many by too few and simply must change.
Let's get it right and let it start now. Use your voice and your vote!
Keep the smile.