Dear Lord Greaves,
My colleagues Sian Reid and Catherine Smart, the Leader and Deputy Leader of Cambridge City Council (cc’d), inform me that you are dealing with the planning aspects of the Localism Bill. It is very encouraging that such a committed localist and community politician is handling this important aspect of the bill.
I understand that Catherine and Sian have already given you chapter and verse about their idea of amending the Localism Bill to protect the character of the local high street – what some people are already calling “The Cambridge Amendment” – but it might be worth my giving you a local councillor’s account of where this comes from and where we have got to so far.
I represent Romsey ward in Cambridge. The heart of our local community is its high street, Mill Road, which is known throughout the city and even the county for its eclectic range of small, specialist, independent retailers. Mill Road is Cambridge’s Brick Lane. It is the most ethnically diverse part of the city, has murals on the railway bridge that celebrate its inclusive character, and its shops are a key part of the social capital that makes this community special. (http://www.mill-road.com/)
Increasingly this has been threatened by the large number of chains moving in on the street. A Tesco Express opened some time ago to widespread concern, and now a Sainsbury’s Express wants to open on the other side of the bridge; this despite the glut of Sainsbury’s and Tescos in the surrounding area. In practical terms, the problem is that most of the small niche traders have a two-strand business model: they provide basic groceries as well as more specialist produce. If the supermarkets move in, they lose some of their basic groceries market and will no longer be commercially viable, meaning that the community loses their specialist retail too, and becomes less diverse.
We want the Localism Bill to be amended to enable local councils to protect the diversity and balance of our high streets where there is something that local people feel is worth protecting; which is exactly what Sian’s amendment would accomplish. Something like this urgently needs to be introduced unless the last pockets of distinctiveness in our communities are to be converted into exchangeable Clone Town streets.
There is enormous support for this campaign to tap into. At the LGA meeting of Lib Dem Leaders this week Sian’s proposal was very warmly received; councillors from all over the country came up to us afterwards to express their interest and ask how they could help. The idea has appeal that cuts across party lines: Conservative and Labour campaigners and councillors have often called for these powers. If we can get a good proposal tabled, at whatever stage of the process, we can go national – and viral – with this grassroots campaign, and ask that politicians from all parties support us.
The urgent challenge is to come up with something workable that can be tabled in the Lords, or in Committee, that is fit for purpose. Once we have cracked the legislative nut our grassroots campaign can really take off – just watch us go to work. Your help in making this happen would be greatly appreciated.
Lib Dem group leader on Cambridgeshire County Council