Hats off to all those at the Cheltenham BID and the ADHD foundation for bringing the iconic umbrella installation to Cheltenham for the first time. The rows of suspended brollies look fantastic above the east end of the High Street, and their dappled shade will have been particularly welcome during the roasting weather.
It’s such a good cause too. When I was Prisons Minister, I worked to introduce a neurodiversity assessment for all new prisoners arriving into custody. The majority have a diagnosis and it’s only by better understanding prisoners’ individual circumstances that tailored interventions can be provided to support rehabilitation.
The umbrella installation also provides a lift to our high street which as I’ve argued before urgently needs a new approach. Cheltenham’s Civic Society caused a stir when they referred to it as a ‘dump’. But even if not all would go that far, I absolutely agree that the status quo is not acceptable.
And as I’ve said before, it’s pretty obvious in my view what needs to happen. Given that we now have far more retail space than required in the internet age, there should be a concerted and organised plan to encourage retail buildings in specific designated zones to be repurposed as residential accommodation.
That would create a positive triple whammy for Cheltenham. It would be good for young buyers desperate to get on the housing ladder. It would breathe life and footfall back into the High Street. And it would help relieve pressure on Cheltenham’s green spaces, constantly under threat from developers.
The Government has introduced a streamlined system to permit such conversions. It includes necessary safeguards for libraries, galleries and community halls etc, but otherwise the system has been made much simpler and quicker.
Now there must be some serious strategic thinking about where in the High Street such conversions should be encouraged.
If Cheltenham stands still, it will go backwards. The time has come for vision and action.
[Column first published in the Glos Echo]