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.