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  • Writer's picturechris mcg

The Politics of Place, the formation of a Towns Board

Leaderships can find themselves contemplating many contradictions, battling with homogenisation and the need for heterogeneity, (Ashworth, 2008), trying to appeal to the local community with aspirations to be a global player in Massey’s speeded-up world, (2005). It can become difficult for leaderships to be aligned. With clear evidence of changing habits, the zeitgeist leans towards local sustainable and artisan producers for emerging consumers, millennials, and generation z’s, a clear shift from the homogeneity of the past. This paradigm shift in everyday habits could facilitate vibrant, interesting places if embraced, replacing commoditisation regeneration. Ntounis et al, (2020), reminds us there is ‘no right way to do this’, but with misjudged leadership perhaps a wrong way? Beer et al (2014), argue ‘Thinking about leadership empowers us to consider what individuals, businesses and groups can do to bring about positive change’, rather than simply ‘engineering support, ……….signifying the distortion of participation in a public relations vehicle’, Arnstein, (1969).

Crewe, governed by Cheshire East, is unlikely to resist retail and leisure trends as online sales nationally nudged to 36% (ONS, Dec 2020) of all retail sales. This can only mean that more shops will close; this will impact Cheshire East’s ‘Panglossian dream’, (Sendra & Sennet, 2020). Reflecting on the analysis of Crewe’s urban DNA (Sendra & Sennet, 2020), it would suggest that the proposed heterotopic space is unlikely to gain traction under the current overstructured leadership. There is a danger of being subservient to the needs of the investors, rather than those of local communities, (Harvey, 2000).

Leadership dystopia

When a town is devoid of any vibrancy and absent of the cultural echoes of its former glory, the leadership has to start at the bottom and build slowly, engaging with the community to find a place that wants a second chance. A dynamic approach is needed; we have to start at the beginning and actively seek out actors that can help build this place, with a leadership that has more than a passing attachment. They need to be drawn from a diverse section of the community, not restricted to any particular conformality or protocol. We must learn not to ‘overthink the problem or over-engineer a solution’ (Sendra & Sennet, 2020), but, Auge’s defined homogenised ‘non-place’, (1995), is not the answer.

The disillusioned and disenfranchised community in Crewe may hope for more chain stores to compete with nearby towns; there is compelling evidence that we need less, but more independent shops where the shop owners are “cool, authentic and embedded” (Millington et al, 2020) in the local community.

Extracts from Hemingway, Crewe - 2020

Crewe is a gritty northern town, a little grittier than most in leafy Cheshire, but it seems home to an abandoned community that holds so much potential. An optimist would wish that Cheshire East could gently guide it on the right path and engage with its multicultural population. Cheshire East’s solution to the problem of vacant shops is a simplistic one; knock them down. The town has a rich historic railway provenance, which could be championed, instead the leadership created a manufactured brand[4] that falls outside the town’s established heritage and quantifies success with crude economic inputs and fails to recognise the importance of social and environmental achievements.

Crewe’s leadership has an established history of employing external consultants, seeking endorsement for change to their own version of utopia, which have to date failed to materialise; "as in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge", (Jacobs, 1993). Without a change in leadership style, it may be impossible to achieve any change.

Jacobs highlights the importance of choosing the correct leader to be the ‘planner in charge’, as the leadership continue to have the same Burkian conversations. The recently formed Crewe Towns Board, is made up of predictable, obliging servants, whose function is to applaud every move that is carefully managed by Cheshire East about the future of the town centre, projecting positive rhetoric about what they are going to achieve.The board were judiciously selected so nobody breaks rank, while at the same time could facilitate conflicting proposals with any future funding: An action that could be in direct conflict with the Nolan principles,[8] and form part of their own constitution.[9] It may be fair to suggest, the board won’t understand the extent of the ‘manipulation’ and are simply a form of ‘illusory participation’ and will be later acknowledged as ‘dishonest and arrogant’, as described by Arnstein, (1969).

An observer will be impressed with the superficial veneer of respectability, but if we delve deeper and look further at their governance, the board are well placed to advance a predetermined political agenda, a far cry from any inclusive governance that could help a new leadership board succeed. Indeed, it would be justifiable to describe the leadership board as elite, exclusive and unrepresentative of a disillusioned community.

Crewe has been provisionally awarded £14 million from the Future High Street Fund on a bid of £25million, although it is not shared with the community how this money is to be allocated. The local authority and the town board are declaring a success; but is success being awarded half of the £25 million? Are we to conclude that the leadership misjudged what Central Government was looking for with an overreliance of the external consultants that were empowered to submit the bid? Without Dr. Keiron Mullen MP on the board, some argue they might not even be in the running at all. Is this the start of a harmonious partnership, Conservative MP alongside a Labour-controlled Cheshire East Council?

The Towns Board, appointed by Cheshire East to oversee the grant funding own governance conveys “this time it will be different” and it must be a positive message that is projected to the community, with no sense check on its validity. Cheshire East’s measure of success appears focused obsessively on economic and financial benefits, believing this will impress the community. However, they need to know what the tangible benefits are to Crewe, in a world that should have one eye on sustainability. Yet, Cheshire East seems to forget the social and environmental benefits should be a greater priority.

The proposed town centre scheme forms the centrepiece of Cheshire East’s plans and supported heartily by the board and harks back to a different era and is unlikely to be delivered. There are simply no tenants for this investment model, and we can draw a comparison from nearby Northwich. There was an opportunity to create a legacy in Crewe, but the workable urban fabric is now demolished and has now been turned to rubble. The former BHS unit could have been transformed into a state-of-the-art music venue at the heart of the community, as a new music venue is a proposal in the board’s projects that formed part of the Towns Fund bid. Instead, they are looking, to resurrect the iconic Limelight, which failed to get a premises licence in its dying days, due to the new housing that now surrounds the site.

Foucauldian discourse

The proposed scheme is not a ‘democratic space’ (Sendro & Sennett,2020), it won’t provide a ‘tactile experience’, but simply a vision of an ‘homogenising trend’, (Parker et al, 2020) of the only developer that wanted to get involved. Cheshire East have overthought a process when the communities’ guiding hand would have sufficed, keeping the iconic fabric intact and building on the very community that were going to use it in accordance with their diverse needs. Crewe’s community is multicultural, and the leadership needs to reflect on this with the clear evidence of a holistic paradigm shift in a town centre’s purpose. It is no longer just a place to shop; shopping now only forms part of our everyday activities. It should seek a wider offering, one that stimulates different cultural needs, and this won’t be achieved by following a myopic blueprint that deals only with real estate. The town needed some encouragement from within, to explore the social and environmental benefits, but instead, the leadership opted for a top-down approach which would be a homogenised carbon copy of the questionable scheme in Northwich.

The market for the type of scheme proposed had faded prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and over the following 12 months, the economy has changed dramatically, further compounding emerging trends. Labour-controlled Cheshire East Council has not adjusted their views but continued down a path that might mean it is too late to attract any meaningful projects that will enhance the benefits for the community, socially and environmentally.

Conclusions - towards urban monotony

A critique of the dual leadership in Crewe, would suggest it is overly complex, weak, nepotistic and lacks any sort of direction due to political ecology: there has been no community involvement and therefore no accountability. If the current project succeeds then both sides of the political divide will claim responsibility, and if a failure occurs then they will resort to blaming each other; but the reality is, both are culpable. To date, no evidence has been provided to suggest that the proposed scheme will be delivered, and the current leadership has not offered any valid explanation for the apparent lack of a meaningful strategy. One could reasonably argue that authorising the demolition of the iconic 1950’s structure that sat at the heart of the town centre, the leadership has been regressive, displacing some of the only retailers in Crewe, many of which were from multicultural communities, drawing parallels to the ‘removal plans’ Arnstein discusses, (1969). There was an opportunity to create a forward-looking and inclusive town centre built around the emerging values of present and future generations.

In its place, the Crewe Town Board are empowered to facilitate a myopic and out-dated top-down approach to regeneration, that is likely to fail. Beer et al, (2014), suggest ‘miscued leadership’ can exhibit a combination of several characteristics, Cheshire East’s ‘miscued’ towns board was constructed by the Local Chamber of Commerce, one of these miscued characteristics. Therefore, the boundaries of their leadership are blurred as they have already become one, not remaining independent of each other to challenge convention. Being aligned and simply communicating decisions is not a valid form of ‘stakeholder engagement’, (Kuar et al, 2019).

The proposed space is not democratic and has not been produced as a result of collaborative leadership, but a homogenised imitation of every scheme that was built prior to the 2008 financial crisis, with the Town’s board conforming only to Arnstein’s (1969), ‘illusory participation’. The leadership so far has failed to contemplate the democratic vision required, and thus will create ‘urban monotony’, (Harvey, 1989), instead of achieving dialectical utopianism.

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