Should towns look distinctive? As high streets and town centres sink into a glitzy sameness – same shop fronts, same logos – from one side of the country to the other, this question is beginning to exercise minds in local government.
We believe the answer is clear. People invest and want to live in places which look unique, not like everywhere else. It is also increasingly clear that, in towns where shops are locally owned, retail takings circulate in the local economy with continuing knock-on benefits. That looks likely to be a key measure of economic success in years to come.
The other question is: can anything be done about it, or do they just have to roll over in the face of global brand marketing, bland regeneration and high rents?
However some places have bucked the trend. What they have in common is that they understand that branding for towns must be underpinned by a distinct sense of place, rather than simply having marketing messages imposed upon them.
They also understand that distinctiveness must be real. It must be rooted in local history – a living history – and resonate with local people. It is more than conventionally recordable assets.
They understand too that small things are just as important as big things: the texture and feel of a place is vital to how a place is perceived, and small changes – such as the removal of eyesores, even a lick of paint – can make a big difference.
Distinctiveness is partly about architecture and conservation. It is partly about buildings, but it actually means having a broader view of what constitutes 'assets'.
All neighbourhoods and towns have 'assets', sometimes hidden and impossible to measure using conventional economic techniques – which may be, for example, a healthy network of local businesses or local traditions.
When we organised our first distinctiveness study, for eight towns in Cheshire, we realised just how broad the range of distinctive assets might be. They included the extraordinary volunteering efforts in Congleton, the canals that form the Cheshire Ring, the industrial stone architecture in Bollington and of course, the tradition of making Cheshire cheese – which, incidentally, dates back to the twelfth century.
It is about local food and local life. It might not be historic at all. It might be an emerging living tradition. The point is not to censor real distinctiveness in search of something that fits neatly into marketing text books.
The key is to persuade local alliances and organisations that they can use those assets – local enthusiasm, empty buildings – to make things happen.
In the short-run that will make them more exciting places to live. In the long-run, it will make them richer economically too.
David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and the author of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life. www.neweconomics.org