Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Vision for Nottingham

As midnight approached on New Year’s Eve, crowds gathered near the imposing gates of Nottingham Castle.  Excited families chose their spot. Generations of good Nottingham folk, from pensioners to pushchairs, excited by the unusual magic of their City at midnight.

For the last few years, a rather impressive firework display had been staged there. It had enjoyed modest advance publicity over the years. Indeed, I once attempted to sponsor it and was told that the Council did not seek to draw attention to it lest crowds arrived. I wonder if Edinburgh Council ever considered the same policy: ‘ssshhh, don’t tell people about the comedy’. Or Lincoln: ‘Let’s have the Christmas Market in June, so no-one finds it’.

Anyway, last New Year’s Eve, as the peaceful crowd in good spirits blossomed, a little concern arose, given no-one could see any evidence of the display being installed by men in fluorescent jackets. As midnight came and went, it was clear that there was to be no display.  Without any advance publicity, the Council had chosen to cancel it.

The sight of maybe a thousand disappointed folk wandering down Friar Lane summed up 21st Century Nottingham. A disappointment.  A poorly-managed disappointment.

Whilst born and bred in Nottingham, my work has taken me across the country, but this City has always been my home.  I have experience of working with ambitious and forward-looking authorities across the country.  Watching the pace of Manchester from my seat on its City Centre Management Committee around ten years ago , I drew comparisons with my pedestrian home town.

West Bridgford was where I came into this world.  Born in the big front bedroom of a rambling four-bedroomed semi.  Back then, Nottingham just assumed it was ‘something’. ‘Town’ was proud. The sight of the stone frontage of the Council House and the guardian Iions suggested this truly was some City.  A City with not one, but two shopping centres enveloping a great colourful pedestrian-friendly hub of shops. Little wonder it emerged from several surveys, well into the 90s, as one of the UK’s top  cities for shopping.
A City with a business heart: Raleigh, Players, Boots; and now Experian. Highly regarded Universities including Nottingham Uni, described as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’ (Sunday Times); and Trent Uni, its fashionable partner.  A City with a beautiful circumference: Wollaton Park; Goose Fair; and the National Water Sports Centre.

For tourists too, a City of history.  The birth of lace, Paul Smith and of course, the legend of Robin Hood.  With this equity alone, Nottingham could have been a leading UK City. Forever. 

But just imagine now a tourist venturing to our great City.  They’d arrive at an unfinished railway station; cross a chewing gum-stained pavement; before jumping into a cab piloted by a driver who did not know the way. Or one who fails to put on the meter and tells you he does not have to because it’s a ‘City Centre job’. Yes, mine did that. I did complain, but that is another story altogether.  They then arrive at ‘the Tales of Robin Hood’. Actually they don’t now. They must have an old map, it is now Tesco.  Ah well, maybe the Costume Museum is worth a visit. No, that is closed now and an unsightly ‘For Sale' sign adorns the building. It’s been empty for years. Had it been my property, I think I may have thought about selling it rather sooner.  So, where next?  Aha!  The 15th Century timber-framed Severns building, home of the Lace Centre. One of Nottingham’s oldest building, painstakingly moved from its old home in 1969 to one adjacent to the Castle walls.  Don’t bother. It is now empty:  you can just see the squinting tourists reading the dirty plaque on the wall.  Anyway.  At least one has the 17th Century Nottingham Castle to look forward to. Not so fast, brigadier. It’s Monday. It’s closed.  I recall, last Spring, even seeing the Tourist Information Office closed. On a Bank Holiday Monday

How can any City treat its tourists this way? Maybe they’d be more impressed a little later on in the evening; watching the City’s youths urinating on the streets. Or seeing the broken bottles outside the pubs.  They can write and complain on the impenetrable Council website but, if my experience is anything to go by, they won’t get an answer.  Shopping to look forward to?  No.  Other cities have now overtaken us. The Broad Marsh Centre, particularly, no longer offers much for the discerning shopper.   So, might our typical tourist just seek to escape by car? Not down the A453 they don’t. Oh no. The major artery to the South is still single carriageway. How can a City the size of Nottingham hold its head high when travelling to or from it is a day-long job?

Sadly, my own experiences of any dealings with the Council have also left me rather unimpressed. That sedate pace suggests those in the front line know what times they have to be at work, but not really why they are really there.  If I ran my business like that, I would not be around too long. There are gifted, hard-working individuals there too, of course, but even they appear frustrated by the Council machine.  I remember seeing the might of the Council in action in a planning enquiry. It left me more than a little unimpressed. 

Away from Nottingham, I mention the name of my City.  The response used to be a smile and  the words ‘Nottingham Forest’ or ‘Brian Clough‘; now the retort is ’gun crime’.  It is almost criminal that our reputation has been so, so polluted.  Do they have any public relations?  I see a 75k post last year for the director of communications; and one imagines that is just the start.

I could much write a much longer piece than this about what is right about the City which I love so much. I am a huge fan.  But one can be honest with one’s family. So let’s be honest amongst us Nottingham folk: there is too much wrong here.

I was once no supporter of the office of elected Mayor.  In London, I saw it as yet another tier of needless bureaucracy.  I have changed my mind.  Whether Livingstone or Boris, the Capital has been better for a leader.  Thankfully, party politics seem to have become rather a side issue. London has renewed vigour and evidence of direction and of decisions. 

If any city needs a Mayor it is Nottingham. It needs a vision; a visionary; and the energy of a great practitioner to make sure it happens. And it needs it now.  This great City’s neglect in the last generation makes me angry.