There’s a serendipitous coincidence between the launch of the latest volley from the reconstituted Urban Task Force and the gathering storm clouds over the so-called night-time economy.
Urban Task Force Episode II: Attack of the Clones sees Lord Rogers emerging from his Manhattan hideaway, slashing a trail with his lightsabre through swathes of suburban mediocrity. Illuminated by the guiding lights of design, density and restoring derelict land, our latte-supping Jedi knights have mounted an all-out assault on the identikit boxes that threaten to engulf the nation.
If it all seems disconcertingly familiar, perhaps we can forgive the directors of this epic for sticking with a formula that was a box-office hit last time around. We’re only left to wonder whether John Prescott is being cast as the hero turned villain, who, having shown such early promise, is now in danger of throwing it all away.
While the Rogers blockbuster may be the story of the week, there’s a longer-running show in a shopping street near you. It’s variously known as the evening economy, licensing reform or - confusingly - an urban renaissance, depending on which spin doctor happens to be on the case at the time.
There’s no doubt that, compared with a few years ago, our town and city centres are much livelier in the evening. Bars and restaurants proliferate - indeed, after dark our city centres are pretty much interchangeable. On a good night this is an urban renaissance: on a bad one, it’s a combination of clone town Britain with the worst forms of antisocial behaviour.
Despite a debate that’s lasted almost as long as New Labour, we’re no nearer squaring the circle. The London Assembly and the Civic Trust, among others, have been bemoaning the effects of licensing reform this week and calling for a more inclusive approach to the evening economy - the London Assembly, for instance, wants museums to stay open till 10pm to attract a rather more diverse crowd.
It’s worrying, but perhaps predictable, we’ve failed to find the right balance. We start with a vision of a buzzing, civilised, inclusive metropolis beloved of the great and the good (take another bow, Lord Rogers) and end up counting the pools of vomit that line our main streets half the week.
All of which brings us back to the vital question: who is this all for? For a huge chunk of the population - and especially those without disposable income - the brave new world we’re building is clearly designed for someone else.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine