One of our annual highlights yesterday was the Royal Designers for Industry dinner. The winner of our Bicentenary Medal and keynote speaker was Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash. When we told Tom he had been given the award we asked him to speak on how urban regeneration might be affected by the economic downturn. That was last July when things seemed difficult but not nearly as bad as they look now.
Tom didn’t hide how tough things are now in the property sector. But he expressed the hope that in times of austerity good design would be seen as an even more important virtue.
Let’s hope he‘s right but, in fact, as I intimated in my earlier blog on Virgin Trains, the recession could drive producers and consumers in two directions. On the low road, sellers will try to screw every penny out of us as they seek to keep their head above water, while consumers will go for the cheapest option. On the high road, sellers will do everything they can to retain the loyalty of customers while buyers will be much more discerning, making sure that they spend their limited money on quality products made to last. The outcomes will in large part reflect the nature of different markets and sets of consumers. Those with a monopoly will try to screw people (as in Virgin Trains), poorer customers will have little choice but to go downmarket.
Our actions as individual consumers will have unwanted collective outcomes. As Anne Ashworth comments in the Times today, we may not think now we will bemoan the loss of Woolworths but we will feel differently when our run down high streets are full of boarded-up shops. In some villages – for example Blockley in Gloucestershire - the combination of an imaginative business strategy and a commitment by residents has seen the local shop not just saved but turned into a thriving social business.
Tom says that fewer people can buy his flats but more people want to rent them. In this way he can continue to design and build great homes. Many businesses will need to look to fundamental changes in their business model to survive. In doing this, there is a case for producers and consumers to work together to get through the bad times. We need to create the spaces for communities to talk over the tough choices we face over the next few years.