Coventry Ltd means business

Catherine Pepinster on how a city centre was privatised

As Duncan Sutherland looks out of his seventh-floor window in Coventry's council offices on to the city below, he knows that next month it will all be his. He will be neither mayor nor town hall chief executive, but the first of a new breed of city boss - at the helm of Coventry Limited.

Coventry is being privatised. The West Midlands city destroyed by the Luftwaffe then rebuilt as the capital of the car industry is being recreated again, this time as a US-style privately run district. A limited company will take over the running of the city centre in June.

Instead of the local council, the company will be responsible for keeping the streets clean, safe and secure; car parking, litter bins, shopping streets, pavements, toilets, street lights, cycle paths, Christmas decorations and closed-circuit security cameras will all be its responsibility. A team of 75 "ambassadors" will be recruited to work in the city centre, welcoming shoppers and visitors, and urging them to "have a nice day".

Other towns and cities across Britain, and Environment Secretary John Gummer, will be watching the experiment closely. If it proves successful, others may imitate it, to counteract the competition from out-of-town shopping complexes which has proved so damaging to the fortunes of the high street.

The change is the brainchild of Labour-controlled Coventry council. Running the city centre, which was largely rebuilt in the Fifties and Sixties, costs pounds 1.6m a year, and the council cannot afford to spend any more. Councillors believe Coventry, which has suffered as nearby out- of-town shopping and its arch-rival, Birmingham, have boomed, will only thrive again if business is involved in running the city. The carrot, they say, is giving business more power and more say. So business, along with community representatives, will be given seats on the company board, and encouraged to invest.

Mr Sutherland, currently Coventry's city development director, will be in charge of the day-to-day running of the new company. He said: "The council will never be able to put more money into the centre of Coventry. If we want more investment we have to give business more of a share in decision-making."

Coventry's businessmen share his faith. Martin Ritchley, chief executive of the Coventry Building Society, believes that handing over running of the city to business is its last hope.

"The local authority imposing its views on the city has not got us very far," he said. Its attitude to car-parking charges, for instance, was less about attracting shoppers than fulfilling the requirements of the city treasurer. "At the end of the day the prosperity of our businesses depends on the city flourishing."

Not everyone is persuaded. Members of Coventry's trades union council say it is the end of local government. Nor are they impressed by the inclusion of one local councillor on the board; it just proves that the whole exercise is undemocratic.

Coventry has already set up a shadow board for the limited company, which will take over on 1 June. It will try to give this city of 305,000 people a more distinct identity and combat the fear of crime which has led many people to shop in malls and left a lot of city centres deserted at night. An application for pounds 2m in European Regional Development funding is also being made.

Other towns and cities, faced with similar problems of confidence, have tried to improve their high streets by hiring town-centre managers to co-ordinate services. In 1990 there were just six of this new breed of manager in Britain; today, 154 towns employ them.

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