Keynote Speech : Rob Hopkins and “the biggest urban brainwave of the century”

ImageWe are delighted to confirm Dr Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Town Totnes as a Keynote Speaker at the 3rd International Place Branding and 2nd Institute of Place Management Conference.

Rob Hopkins brings humour, imagination and vision to the great challenges of our time, and argues that what is needed, above all else, at this time in history, is “engaged optimism”.  The rapidly-spreading Transition movement which he was pivotal in establishing, is an embodiment of that.  Nicholas Crane, presenter of BBC2’s recent ‘Town’ series, recently referred to Transition as “the biggest urban brainwave of the century”.  Rob’s experience with community-led approaches to strategic place management and branding will be an inspiring addition to the conference.

Rob is the author of the newly-published “The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times”, and previously wrote the best-selling ‘Transition Handbook’.   He was the winner of the 2008 Schumacher Award, is an Ashoka Fellow and a Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, served 3 years as a Trustee of the Soil Association, and was named by the Independent as one of the UK’s top 100 environmentalists.  He is the winner of the 2009 Observer Ethical Award for the Grassroots Campaigner category, and in December 2009 was voted the Energy Saving Trust/Guardian’s ‘Green Community Hero’.  In February 2012, Rob and the Transition Network were among NESTA and The Observer’s list of ‘Britain’s 50 New Radicals’.

He blogs at, tweets as robintransition, speaks widely on Transition and peak oil, holds an MSc in Social Research and recently completed a PhD at the University of Plymouth entitled ‘Localisation and resilience at the local level: the case of Transition Town Totnes’.   He recently became a Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth  and lives in Devon where he raises both children and various vegetables.

Victoria Baths – Local Asset or National Treasure

It’s my second trip to Victoria Baths. Not to brush up on my front crawl but to meet the Board of Trustees who are working to restore the baths to their former glory. For anyone that hasn’t visited it is an amazing place. Winning BBC2’s Restoration Series, has ensured a lot of remedial work has already been done to restore the baths to their former Edwardian glory. But there’s still a lot to do. The question is which bits to do first and how to pay for this?
My contribution to the solution involves embedding the baths back into the local community and concentrating on serving a local catchment. Whilst the baths are an asset to Manchester and the nation, they were built to serve a very local population.

In the days before the NHS people were regularly referred to spas and baths, to take the waters, for hydro-massage and all sorts of other programmes of treatments. The new nationalised health service preferred the more short-term and instantaneous approach of prescribing a pill (no doubt encouraged by the marketing budgets of the fast-growing pharmaceutical industry). Of course, we are now seeing a rise of preventative treatments and a recognition of the huge health benefits associated with “wellness”.

Victoria Baths has a catchment that could do with being more healthy; it is in need of its services. Not only in terms of permanent residents, but also the temporary ones in Manchester Royal Infirmary, which is only half a mile away.

The sheer scale and grandeur of the baths and the enthusiasm of the BBC viewers that voted to save them mean that they are a national asset. But if they are going to be viable then they need to attract regular users, not just occasional visitors.

You can see more about the plans for restoration by following the link below. I am sure the Board would also be interested in hearing from anyone who had expertise in the area.


Cathy, Professor of Shops


Today saw the Queen of Shop’s review of Britain’s high streets.  Mary Portas’ brief from David Cameron was “to create vibrant and diverse town centres and bring back the bustle to our high streets”.  This call for Britain’s towns to be ‘vital and viable’ is nothing new, in fact this commitment has been incorporated into various strands of national policy for at least 15 years.   

So why is the future for towns looking so bleak?  And what can the Queen of Shops do, that three successive governments have said they’d do and haven’t?       

Mary says that her report is not about pointing the finger of blame but in order to solve problems, you have to fully understand them.  The factors that drive town centre decline are complicated, interlinked, interdisciplinary and paradoxical.  As Mary points out  “(w)hen I started my work on the review, I ploughed through a huge pile of previous reports about high streets and town centres and found so many good ideas which have simply sat on the shelf. Pretty soon I realised why. What I discovered is the complexity and diversity of the problems faced by high streets.   And I’ve learnt just how much of a complex web of interests and stakeholders are involved, many of whom have simply failed to collaborate or compromise”.  

Town centre decline is ‘a messy problem’, it doesn’t fit neatly into one government department, one of the reasons why the Prime Minister chose to ask a celebrity consultant to conduct a review rather than his own civil servants.  Mary says she doesn’t want to point the finger of blame in her report, but to solve a problem you need to fully understand it – and whilst she makes a lot of sensible recommendations, she doesn’t ask why the majority of her recommendations have already made and in some instances, put into practice, but have still not worked.

“It’s obvious, it’s all wrong and anyway they said it years ago”.   Most of the on-line comments about her recommendations fit this paraphrase coined by the respected economic geographer Paul Krugman, commenting on how his work on new economic geography and city development was received from peer reviewers.  Nevertheless, these comments raise interesting questions. If a solution is obvious and ‘old hat’, then what has stopped it being put into practice?  Likewise, if something is ‘all wrong’ then why is that? And is the proposal at one end of a ‘solution continuum’, with its opposite ‘all right’?

Although there are 28 recommendations, they fall into six main categories:  getting town centres running like businesses, getting the basics right to allow business to flourish, levelling the playing field, defining landlords roles and responsibilities, giving communities a greater say and re-imagining our high streets.

They are a mixture of top-down and bottom-up solutions that can be summed up in one recommendation.  Change needs to be locally-driven within a supportive policy framework.

But three successive governments have known this already – and backed a commitment to ‘vital and viable’ town centres.  We know many towns are failing, especially those that are near cities and coastal towns, where retail vacancy rates run at nearly 30%.  Even the ones that are ‘viable’ or, in other words, are economically successful, are not vital in the same way they were. Research by the New Economics Foundation has showed that 41% of towns and cities are ‘clone towns’ i.e. more than half their shops are chains.  Its hardly surprising people are not using their town centre if it is only offering them an inconvenient ‘copy’ of what’s available in other more accessible areas such as out-of-town superstores or larger cities, that have good public transport links.

One of Mary’s main recommendations is to create town teams to take a more direct role in the day-to-day running of a town and also create a vision and long-term plan for the place’s future.  There are already, I would estimate, 1,000 or so places that have such a partnership.  It might not be formal town centre management or a Business Improvement District, but the principle’s the same.  A partnership of local stakeholders, made up of businesses, the council and local residents.  Town centre management has been in place in the UK for nearly 25 years but it hasn’t been properly supported.  We know it’s a good idea but how do we actually encourage and facilitate it?

Mary also talks about communities having more say, again an issue highlighted in recent government reforms such as the Localism Bill.  Traditionally it has been elected council members and their officers responsible for places.  The very fact that so many places have lost their way, illustrates Mary’s comment that these areas have been mismanaged and ignored for too long.  But in my experience it is hard to challenge the status quo, unless the existing governance structures are open to such change.  People responsible for places need to have the right skills and knowledge – it is a really important job so they need to be competent.  If they need some training and support, this needs to be available and if they are not up to the job, they shouldn’t do it.  Again whilst Mary calls for professional and inclusive place management, she doesn’t say how this will happen.  

Her other main and very important recommendation is to level the playing field.  In particular recommendation 14 states “Make explicit a presumption in favour of town centre development in the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework”.  This will be interesting as this gets to the heart of the issue; will a government introducing planning reforms to simplify decision making by getting rid of such guidance and statements be prepared to introduce this intervention?  Local action is crucial, as high streets won’t fix themselves, but this effort has to be within a supportive planning policy framework.  So if the Government really wants to put ‘town centres first’ then by default, it means other types of development coming last.

Town centres are more than just shopping destinations.  They have been the heart of the community, in economic, social and political terms.  Of course, if a centre doesn’t have a town to serve anymore, then its declined should be managed.  But for those towns and cities that still have a catchment, then global trends, such as increasing transport costs, an ageing population and, ultimately, global warming, means that politicians should be doing what they can today to ‘future-proof’ our towns and cities.  They offer a concentration of services with transport links and a ready made ‘brand’ (their name).  In the long run, it is so much cheaper to not reinvent the wheel!


Making Mountains


I saw this wonderful idea this week through some new friends we have met digitally and wanted to share it with you.

One of my colleagues passed along Linda Carroli’s Placeblog and after reading into her twitter feed I came across this The Berg.

The idea was hatched by a German professor who wanted to build a man-made 1000metre mountain on a disused airport in the middle of Berlin. The website throws up some interesting ideas, images and even a Facebook campaign which has encouraged users from around the world to make suggestions for alternative sites for their own mountain.

Now while I wholly support a mischievous attempt to throw off the shackles of conventional town planning, (possibly a throw back to my punk days): It is clearly stated as a faux concept and not formulated for actual conception.

But, and I know this is a big but, could we ever envisage a future where an artificial natural icon of this magnitude would be considered as a focal point of urban planning?

From Victorian times city centre parks and gardens served to remind the city dwellers of the beauty of natural spaces and often urbanites enjoy natural retreats within towns more than a well crafted building. I hope that in the future there will be provision for creating an urban geo-graphical feature of this size. I for one would appreciate the capability for enjoying outdoor pursuits like cycling and walking in natural albeit man-made environments if they were within ten minutes commute from my city centre flat!

The problem is that town and city centre space is important economically, therefore the idea of de-commodifying it and having space dedicated to non-economic activity is, at the moment, unthinkable.

In fact we are having a debate centred around this very subject on the 1st of October, should you be in the vicinity, please come along. The official bumph will start to wind its way to you very soon, but do keep it in mind. There will be a chance to meet up with Anna Minton who has just written a compelling book ‘Ground Control’ which looks at ownership of cities and places on a macro-level. Plus we’ll be laying on the wine and nibbles afterwards for a bit of networking.

Why me and place management?

Earlier in the week I did a telephone interview with Emerald Insight, the publishers of our journal (Journal of Place Management and Development). Most of the questions were related to what place management was and how it was evolving as an academic subject, but one of the questions that really got me thinking was why I had personally become involved in it.

One of the major factors behind my interest is, not surprisingly, location related.  I came to work at Manchester Metropolitan University in October 1997, at which time there was already a healthy interest in town centre management (TCM), with most of the world’s researchers of the topic having spent some time at MMU in their career.

Why TCM @ MMU?  Well probably because MMU was the first university (in Europe at least) to offer Retail Management as a degree – and we have, for many years, had geographers present in the business school.  The regular social and intellectual interaction between geographers and marketers has meant there has been a lively group of co-located academic colleagues from different disciplines…so it is no surprise a ‘new’ subject of interest has been born.

Another factor was the Department’s interest in the independent retail sector –  family owned small shops and service businesses – especially those located in town centres. From the research projects I was involved with it became very apparent that the embedding of businesses within their local community could have a positive effect on their sustainability.

In many ways a shop’s future is outside the owner’s hands: if their local economy is not being managed well and the town centre is going into decline, then it’s very difficult for them as an individual operator to do much about it. If the stakeholders with an interest in the town centre get together, then, through collective action, changes can be made.  Changes such as agreeing a common day for late-night opening, publishing a town centre guide or funding a park and ride scheme.

I like place management as I’ve always been the sort of person who, if things aren’t going right, I don’t like to sit around and complain. So I see it as something where everyone can make a difference, not just elected representatives or people that have ‘place manager’ as a job title.

I have just moved into Manchester city centre, across the road from work, which you can see from the cool new Street View from Google Maps.

I have asked to join Manchester City Centre’s Residents’ Forum. I think it’s about time I got involved in place management in a practical way.  The Forum is actively involved in consultations for planning and developments in the city centre as well as busy doing practical things like making improvements to inner city parks.

So, thanks to Emerald for asking me the question “how did you get involved in place management”…obviously it wasn’t planned but then I am a great believer in serendipity.

You can read the full version of the interview in the next issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development or on the Emerald website .

Heres to you and yours

“Well it’s been pretty hectic in the world of place management of late and as part of my schedule last week I was invited to the Trafford Centre to speak about all things credit crunch and such for the Radio 4 programme ‘You and Yours’.

After a brief architectural tour of the centre’s fountains by Julian, I was lucky enough to be first on the bill just around 3 minutes to be exact.”

Link to i-player

Hope you enjoy 😉

Could we run a retail unit in a shopping emporium?

Highlighting the uniqueness of Afflecks Palace
Highlighting the uniqueness of Afflecks Palace

A slightly different take on the ‘piss up in the brewery’ conundrum, but it is a question I was faced with earlier today. Our local independent retail haven, Afflecks Palace, has offered my university a retail unit.

It was excellent news, last February, when Manchester learnt that it was not going to loose its last bastion of independent retailing. With its punk and retro fashion, new and second-hand records, tattoo and piercing parlours, veggie cafes and fancy dress Afflecks Palace is pretty much the only place in Manchester where you can browse through products and buy services that you won’t find on the ‘high street’.

The building started life as a department store (Affleck and Browns) and was ‘repurposed’ under lease by a local entrepreneur about 25 years ago, to provide low-rent retail space to independent retailers and other businesses that would now be called creative industries (galleries and designers etc.)

This lease expired in June 2007 and the whole venture looked like it was going to be another victim of the creeping gentrification of the area (the Northern Quarter) as the building’s owners were expected to ‘sell out’ with Afflecks Palace morphing into yet another collection of luxury flats, trading on a iconic brand name (think the Hacienda).

Nevertheless, after a well-coordinated campaign, including on-line petitions and the support of the local press, the owners (Bruntwood) decided to take over the management of the business, renaming it Afflecks and doing some refurbishment and general ‘tarting up’.

From a place-management perspective, Afflecks is important for different reasons. Firstly, a place needs low-cost space to incubate small businesses. Many of them will fail and many of them will only survive as small-scale business, but a few of them will go on to be tomorrow’s big businesses and brands. For example, Urban Splash’s boss Tom Bloxham worked in Afflecks Palace before founding his property business, Urban Spalsh, which has been instrumental in transforming Manchester’s appearance over the last 15 years.

Secondly, Afflecks is different, it gives Manchester something unique, which adds to its identity. In contrast to the modern-day homogenisation of retail areas, it is good to walk around somewhere a bit quirky and chaotic, much more middle-eastern bazaar, than middle-of the road banal. Afflecks is a place in itself and needs to be managed as such. The new management will need to consider what will get people visiting and spending money, not just manage the space as a collection of disjointed retail units.

So often, with markets, the opportunity to manage the collective is overlooked, the market manager sees their job as a cross between health and safety enforcer and debt collector rather than someone who can coordinate the activities and resources of a wide range of stakeholders, to attract people to the location.

So, if I was manager of Afflecks, what would a university-run retail unit do for me, for the overall offer of the location? Does a university brand bring credibility? Would having our art and design students showcase or sell their work bring added creativity and/or innovation? Time to pick up the phone, I suppose and find out.

A cold wind blows….

Today, another icy chill creeps across many high streets as Baugur, the retailing group from Iceland looks set to go into administration. It currently owns/controls a number of familiar names including Coast, Principles, Hamleys and House of Fraser (link).

Wyedale Garden Centres is also one of their assets and it’s a good job I am moving into the city centre (oops secret is out) as, at the moment, the local Wyedale garden centre is the only retailer within a mile of my house.

I am not privy to any information relating to the future of this particular retail brand but, from a purely personal point of view, loosing the garden centre would be a great blow to me and the rest of the people of Chadkirk.

One of its most unusual features is the miniature steam railway, which runs around its grounds, delighting children and many middle-aged men alike. It is a modern-day by-product of globalisation, that such a quirky, seemingly ‘unique’ place in the North West of England can be affected by what goes on in Iceland.

Iceland was one country that the financially unenlightened (i.e. me, Gordon Brown etc.) would never have thought could have such an impact of local places.

Not only does the news about Baugur cast even more of a shadow over many high streets and centres, many local authorities (123) face the challenge of getting nearly £1bn of money back from failed Icelandic banks.

Obviously, the loss of this money will have an impact on the level of service local authorities can provide, if not now, then in the future.

Perhaps we should be thinking about a standard for the word ‘local’, just like ‘organic’ has been given a specific interpretation by the Soil Association (and, well, to be honest a different interpretation by the EU…..but you know what I mean)?

Maybe a ‘local’ authority should be just that, investing and operating in a more locally favourably manner, investing funds into, for example, local credit unions rather than international financial institutions?