The French have mastered the art of nurturing individual shops and businesses, whereas here, civilised life is leaking out of our town centres. Gus Alexander has an idea…

An architect can only be as as good as his client. It’s all very well streamlining the planning system, and having Cabe come and ring bells and wave rattles for you, but let’s face it, the client is the driving force behind any project. As conglomerates get bigger and more unwieldy, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish who the client is. One of the reasons why the first tranche of buildings to come on stream as a result of Lottery funding were of such a high standard was that their clients were right in there. Obviously, planning authorities played their part but they were responding to briefs that were not principally concerned with the maximisation of profit.

We are all operating in a sea of financial turmoil and I very much doubt that it is going to be business as usual anytime soon. Okay, the emergence of markets in the Far and Middle East can provide work for our more successful construction operations, but development possibilities in Britain and the rest of Europe remain dismal. We will be stuck with millions of public service pensions to fund, and precious little coming in to do it with.

Compared with the young thrusters in China (where democracy does not get in the way of development as it must here), Europe is full of shagged out retirees who contribute very little to wealth generation while making ever-increasing demands on public services, particularly health.

One of the things that Europe does have is thousands of attractive towns and villages where a sort of low-energy civilised life can be carried on in a way that it cannot where Wallmart economics prevail. I was in Angoulême in western France over the new year and it is still a source of joy to see how individual shops and businesses survive. I am not sure how it works but the French realise that France is not France unless boulangeries and charcuteries survive. Of course, there is no shortage of hypermarkets and ugly retail parks, but somehow these contrive to be in a different place from the real shops. The same is true in the Foro Italico in Rome. When were you last in a place that had three glove-making shops within 500m? And it’s not because McDonald’s have never heard of it. Nobody in Britain seems to realise that these things are just as important to the maintenance of civilised life here.

When you wander down a street looking for a (ha!) bookseller, you end up walking past shops where the smells are of wax polish and old socks

Although this is not strictly a planning issue, there is somewhere where central government can play a part and (heaven forfend!) interfere with and manipulate the market, and this is the imposition of local rates. Instead of historic towns and cities being treated as airport shopping complexes where all businesses compete for floor space equally, high streets could be rated in a way that treats different types of operation individually.

There is no real life in a town centre where retail premises are occupied solely by high mark-up businesses such as estate agents and antique shops. Unless they are occupied by charity shops which pay very little if any rates. This is why when you wander down a street looking for a (ha!) bookseller, you end up walking past shops where the alternating smells are of Brut, wax polish and old socks. The collapse of local post offices and pubs is not just an inconvenience. It is a tragedy. Combined post office, pub, garage anybody? Most businesses have to submit VAT returns quarterly, so if start-up businesses or low mark-up operations are paying especially low rates, it will be quite easy to monitor whether they are actually in a position to pay more, whether they are located in the wilds of Herefordshire or the depths of Hackney.

The life blood of any economy is dependent on new life at the bottom. It is bad enough having to run the gauntlet of employment and social services directives, health and safety requirements and what have you, without having to pay a fortune in rates just because the value has already been set, irrespective of the business that operates from there. A greengrocer is not the same economic animal as Starbucks. And Starbucks is not the same as a patisserie run by the people who own it. But all have something special to offer the local commercial community.

The ridiculous thing is that more and more people are becoming self-employed and/or working from home, and so, just at the time when there are working people around to benefit from small, individual retail services, the dead hand of central government and its universal business rate is making it as difficult as possible for them to thrive.