On the 5th May 2011 I failed in my attempt to be re-elected to Luton Borough Council after eight years serving as an elected councillor. This article is part of a series of posts where I attempt to process what those eight years have meant for myself by asking the question “what did I achieve?” in that time.
I remember the occasion well. The architects that Luton Borough Council had employed to come up with the design for the new St George’s Square were giving a presentation to executive members, me amongst them, and other councillors about what they wanted the new Square to look like. The architects firm, Gillespies (despite having one of those awful impractical websites that architect practices seem to favour), had done a very good job. The designs they presented that day didn’t look all that much different to what we ended up with and the Square has gone on to win several awards.
So as we watched the presentation I think most of us were rather impressed. But there was one sequence in their presentation that struck me more than the other bits and gave me an idea. This was a real ‘light-bulb’ moment.
They showed a couple of slides that outlined how the Square could accommodate a stage and theatre style seating in a number of different configurations. Viewing these I suddenly realised that in the redeveloping the Square we would be doing more than reviving a tired and underused space in the town centre, we would also be creating an outdoor space that could be used for a number of different activities. An unexpected bonus of the new development was that we would be giving the Town a new venue.
I came away from that meeting excited by the possibilities. While the redevelopment of the Square was a really good project in itself I was now aware of the opportunity to give it some added value. The question was then how could we make use of this new venue.
In the following months, as the new Square was being built, I set out to do two things. The first was to ensure that early discussions were held with the relevant council officers about what we could do with the Square. The second was during the budget process to secure a modest pot of money that could be used to part fund whatever it was we were going to do. I achieved this and this meant that when the new Square was opened a whole programme of activities were planned for the first year.
I knew that to some extent this would be an experiment. This was a new facility. It would take some time to work out how to use it. You would need to discover the practical implications of making the space work. For instance what equipment would be needed and how the space could best be managed. It would also be necessary to work out what kind activities worked in that space and what did not. But I felt it was important that the Council should be brave enough to allow this experiment to take place so that we could learn how to make best use of this new asset.
The hard work of conducting this experiment was mostly done by the staff of the arts service, the team headed up by Andy Grays, which at that point was still part of the Council. But I don’t think without me giving the political space in which to explore how to use the Square the Council would have done as much as it did. So I feel that insisting that the Council take a lead in developing this programme of activities is an achievement.
Two things came out of this that I was particularly pleased about. The first was that for several weeks during the winter of 2007 there was an ice rink in the Square. I thought this worked really well and I don’t quite understand why it hasn’t been brought back.
The second was the first Luton Summer festival. This series of concerts and performances held during the summer of 07 wasn’t quite what I personally envisioned. The choice of acts wasn’t quite right, the layout of the Square felt over engineered with too many barriers and such, and it was discovered that selling tickets didn’t really work. But that was the whole point of the experiment – too learn how to make the venue work. But what it did do was prove that the new St George’s Square could be used as a venue to provide entertainment to the people of the Town.
And the the Summer Festival has continued. Sometimes it has been unlucky with the weather, but for four years it has brought a wide range of music and children’s activities to the Square. It has showcased local talent, brought life and vibrancy to the town centre, and given people a good time. So in all, I think, worthwhile.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.