Category Archives: Local Colour

I have seen the future of the high street – and it works

Empty shop in Brixton

Board stupid: this need not be the fate of our high streets


Anybody who’s ever had their ears assaulted by a sub-Del Boy shyster flogging dodgy gear from a recently deceased shop must welcome the vision of Dan Thompson. If Thompson is right, the future of our high streets is not one of dystopian gloom as giant supermarkets suck the life out of independent traders; he believes they can be transformed into places of creativity, light and joy. 

This is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism. As he revealed when he spoke to the Brighton Future of News Group earlier this week, Thompson mixes an artist’s sense of imaginative possibility with the entrepreneur’s shrewd sense of a good deal. Ten years ago, in the course of a chequered career, he found himself in possession of the keys to a former bakery in Worthing. He set about turning it into a temporary art gallery and the empty shops network was born. His Revolutionary Arts Group has since overseen projects in Coventry and Carlisle, among other places. 

It’s all above-board – the empty shop initiatives must abide by a ‘licence to occupy’. Mostly, Thompson reckons, the owners are happy to see the outlets being used and cared for. No-one is happy with the gap-toothed appearance of too many of our town centres. 

Thompson said that the empty shop network chimes with the Conservative philosophy of the Big Society (if it can be called a philosophy). I’m not so sure. Thompson’s original idea would not have got off the ground without support from the then Labour government. But whatever the political stripe of the project, anybody wishing to develop and extend the idea is going to need sponsorship. There’s no point asking local government for the money. Local traders may be convinced to back a community project rather than see the surrounding area decay and die. 

At the end of the evening, to prove that action speaks louder than words, Thompson challenged to the assembled hacks and hackers to come up with ideas to use an empty shop in Shoreham – and to put those plans into action. I’ll let you know how we get on.



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CSI Brighton: crime capital or cultivated community?

Brighton is a civilised place that likes to flirt with rough trade now and then. A new play, ‘On Race Hill’, which opens at the Dome on Friday (January 15), promises to shine a light on the dark side of the city’s history – and to investigate the fact and fiction behind the reputation. The advance blurb quotes Keith Waterhouse’s quip: “Brighton is a town that looks as if it is helping police with their enquires” but a recent report in The Argus suggests that, as in most places, fear of crime is more prevalent than the real thing . 

They say it changes when the sun goes down


The sleazy underbelly and vicious characters, however, have proved irresistible to authors and film makers. In ‘Kissing and Killing’, Frank Gray sets out the background to such movies as The Brighton Strangler (1945), Brighton Rock (1948), Jigsaw (1962), Mona Lisa (1986), Circus (2000), and London to Brighton (2005). 

 Gray relates the disturbing story of Ernest Friend-Smith who, in 1928 was kidnapped on Madeira Drive, taken to the Downs, beaten and robbed. He died days later. Most notoriously, in 1934, the torso of a woman was discovered in a trunk at Brighton Station. The legs were later found, also in a trunk, at Kings Cross Station in London. When an unrelated investigation tuned up another Brighton woman’s cadaver in a suitcase, the town’s depraved disposition was sealed. 

These sensational events, it has been argued, prompted Graham Greene to write Brighton Rock, the most famous, and still the best, thriller set in the seaside resort. Of course, the location is not Brighton at all – it is Greeneland, where a small-time mobster can be troubled by the prospect of God’s salvific will, where a blowsy bar-fly is an angel of vengeance is disguise, and where no good deed goes unpunished. A remake of the movie is currently in production with Sam Riley as the baby-faced killer and Helen Mirren as his plebeian nemesis. It will be interesting to see how much of Greene’s Catholic imagery is presented to today’s secular audience. 

Recently, in both ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘London to Brighton’, the seaside initially provides a place of safety for young women trying to escape a terrible fate in London. But it is a shelter which proves as fleeting as the unreliable climate. 

The theme is constant: you never now where you are in Brighton. ‘On Race Hill’ has an alluring selection of appalling stories on which to draw for the launch event in the Brighton Dome and Festival’s Artist Development programme.

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Market farces

Fire damage: Morrisons supermarket in Penrith. Photo copyright Linda Mellor

For the last six months of this year I lived in Penrith in north Cumbria. The word usually used to describe the town is ‘remote’. It isn’t; it’s one of the most accessible places in England. It sits on the edge of the M6 and regular trains stop en route to London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham.

Yet the image of Penrith as a sleepy backwater is not only accepted by the local people, it is heartily endorsed. Outsiders (‘off-comers’) are regarded warily and progress is viewed with suspicion.

As soon as I moved to the area, I set about looking for news items to write up for the national media. It didn’t look promising. The local paper, The Herald, focuses heavily on reports from the magistrates’ court, giving the impression that this peaceable place is a hotbed of street crime.

Matters improved when I made contact with Linda Mellor, a superb photographer ( who is also in charge of the hyperlocal website ( Linda featured me in her ‘Cumbrian Man’ gallery and together we covered the opening of a chic new hotel and bar, The Lounge; the appearance of Booker-nominated author Sarah Hall at Penrith library; and local concern at the plans for a huge new Sainsbury’s in the centre of the town.

It is this last item which is most worthy of national attention – a cautionary tale of how not to do town planning. The full history is too tortuous to detail here but in brief summary, the debacle began 13 years ago, when an area around Southend Road was identified as suitable for retail development. In 1999 the local council approved the first planning brief for the site. In 2003 a firm called Lowther -Minnelli was appointed as the preferred developer. The Lowther family is the largest landowner in the Lake District. 

Discussions over the scheme dragged on and a final agreement was not reached until June 2008. Lowther –Minnelli’s contract was terminated in four months later when the National Australia Bank withdrew its funding. Sainsbury stepped in to offer funding for the development with the proviso that it be allowed to build either a 78,000 or 90,000 sq ft superstore. The council undertook a public consultation on Sainsbury’s proposals which demonstrated that public opinion was split down the middle. Councillors have now recommended that the proposal be put back out to tender prompting an angry reaction from Sainsbury’s. The fiasco is estimated to cost the Eden District Council more than £6 million.

I left Penrith to return to live in Brighton at the start of this month. Of course, as soon as I shipped out I missed the most dramatic event to occur in the town all year when the local Morrison’s went up in flames. The group has promised to build a bigger and better supermarket in its place. Whether Denis Van Outen, Richard Hamilton and Alan Hansen will put in an appearance remains to be seen.


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