Post the coronavirus crisis we will all wish for ‘normality’, a return to the reassurance of the way things have been. But though we might want a return to the known and familiar, the setbacks and the despair of the covid-19 crisis should make us hope that change is in the air. That something better is possible. We surely cannot be desperate to return to a society troubled by inequality, anxious about climate change, confused about migration and unclear as to where we go after leaving the EU – and with cities at the mercy of developers rather than providing the environments and facilities that residents want.
The conditions we are experiencing in ‘lockdown’ have helped us glimpse the future, and have made people recognise the opportunities for change. A ‘new normal’ is possible. This may embrace opportunities to improve air quality and reduce car dependency, and tackle the issues of decline in urban centres.
But the window is likely to be small before external circumstances close in. There will inevitably be pressures from Government and business on society and local authorities to ‘get back to normal’. But this crisis – and the twin fears of returning to our bad old ways and of the poverty that may affect us all (in terms of welfare and prosperity) as we seek to recover from an unprecedented recession – should be the prompt for us to reassess our priorities. In our lifetimes we will never get a better chance to consider how we can make a future better than the past.
In the face of the crisis, Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, has said recently “What have we learnt, how do we improve, and how do we build back better?” The current situation with all its possibilities and terrifying uncertainties presents Coventry with the opportunity to re-think our vision for the city – what kind of place do we, the residents, want it to be?
We cannot predict what change will come (though we may have ideas). No particular urban future is inevitable. But the Covid 19 crisis is expanding our economic imagination – the possibilities open to society. So Coventry’s future story – its reality – is up for grabs. We can seek to influence changes that will make Coventry better – and have a more sustainable future – rather than have whatever is forced on us by external circumstances.
The Coventry Society campaigns for a city of better quality; of appropriate amenities; of diversity and distinctiveness in retail and culture and where heritage is protected and valued. Let us now have a city-wide discussion about what we want to achieve in these areas post-lockdown, about how we can “build back better.”
Covid 19 and our reaction to it through drastically curtailed economic and social activities in the lockdown will lead onto significant changes to our behaviour, affecting, fundamentally, our economy and society. As a stimulus to thinking, here are three things that we could change:
Traffic and air quality
Coventry’s Local Air Quality Plan (LAQP), in consultation to secure a grant of £24,5M, is a vital current adjunct to Coventry’s acknowledged leadership among local authorities in climate change action. But the pace of change is moving so quickly in this area (vis Grant Shapps announcements of resources for urban active travel measures) that while the LAQP’s provisions for more cycling, greening some of the bus fleet, and highway improvements at NO2 blackspots are laudable and necessary, a debate is to be had as to how much further we should go in the city.
We could go beyond easing traffic congestion to restrictions on car use to further improve air quality, create safer streets, and make a greater contribution to the City’s Climate Change Action Plan. Here, the proposed ‘Engagement Programme’ of the LAQP – aimed at exploring with businesses, schools and communities the opportunities for promoting active travel (i.e. reducing local car journeys through encouraging walking, cycling and public transport use) provides the city with the opportunity of engaging in the debate and identifying our desired outcomes.
We might also wish to consider promoting an ambitious greening / tree planting
programme as an adjunct to the LAQP in order to further enhance the city’s air quality.
Changes in the city centre in recent years have focussed on improving the physical environment while seeking to improve the centre’s retail offer. While succeeded on the former the persistent decline in city centre footfall has seen a loss of retail floorspace (recently, dramatically with IKEAs closure) with more to be expected given the effects of prolonged shop closures and increased on-line purchases during lockdown.
Effects too will be felt in the city centre’s pubs, bars and restaurants. Prospects for the City Centre South redevelopment look the poorer. Similarly, home working in the lockdown has caused concern for the future of traditional office floorspace – in Coventry this must threaten the marginal economics of the Friargate development by the station.
To add to worries, there must be fears that Coventry University’s expansion in the city centre and the attendant student housing developments will be slowed in the face of reduced income, not least from the loss of fees from overseas students. In such difficult and unfavourable circumstances the current coronavirus crisis presents a challenge of reshaping city centres.
There is a debate to be had about the Coventry city centre we want/are able to have in the future. Arguably, this may be a city centre of greater diversity, meeting the needs of residents through more shops of modest rental targeted at small, diverse, independent retailers, with a food and drink offer to attract residents and visitors, with significant new social housing. The Councils latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment shows a need for an additional 12,000 affordable houses by 2031. Any new health and leisure facilities could be located in the accessible city centre in a reversal of recent trends.
Culture, leisure and recreation
The lockdown has suspended so many of the culture and leisure activities that we formerly took for granted: theatre, cinema, libraries, museums, music venues, watching and taking part in sport. Given the devastating effects on revenues and on cultural and arts organisations and independent artists and professionals, will public and charitable resources be sufficient to support their meaningful re-opening? When and how will audiences in Coventry appreciate the thrill and inspiration of seeing and hearing performances and events and experiencing works of art up close?
Conversely, we have come to appreciate the vital importance of our City’s parks and greenspaces for the mental and physical well-being of individuals and families. The Covid 19 crisis has sharply focussed all of our minds on the health and wellbeing agenda and the free time that people have found themselves with under lockdown has led to a surge in walking, cycling, running and we should take positive steps to maintain the momentum that has developed. Yet Coventry has more to lose than most, given our anticipation of the investments for City of Culture 2021. Will the resources of Culture Coventry survive the inevitable re-prioritisation of Government arts and culture funding?
Will the Council have resources other than for the most basic maintenance of our parks?
Given the recent and current investments in our cultural heritage at the Old Grammar School, St. Mary’s Guildhall, Drapers Hall, the Burges and Charterhouse can these be used to help the city recover through the attraction of more and varied leisure and conference visitors and hosting events? And will a national appreciation of the importance of urban parks lead to the additional resources that will secure the effective implementation of the City’s recent Greenspace Strategy? These are serious issues on which the city needs to encourage engagement to ‘build back better’.
The Coventry Society has a passion for Coventry and a commitment to a positive change. This passion is shared by each and every member of our Society. In this spirit we ask:
- Do you agree that we need a different vision for the city moving forward into the post-Covid era?
- What changes would you like to see, both in terms of our strategic approach and in
terms of specific ideas and proposals that might make a real difference?
- How do we secure as wide a range of partners and as wide an engagement as possible to develop a new vision for the city?
- How do we build a consensus for a different approach?
- How would we secure political support for a new approach?
This discussion document has been published by the Coventry Society Committee. We would love to know what you think!