Soapbox orators get 300 new places from which to corner the public

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A network of 300 "speakers' corners" is to be set up throughthe country to help to regenerate town and city centres, under plans to be revealed today.

A network of 300 "speakers' corners" is to be set up throughthe country to help to regenerate town and city centres, under plans to be revealed today.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who regularly holds public meetings outside Marks & Spencer in his constituency of Blackburn, said last night that the scheme was part of the "best British tradition of free speech and public debate".

Pilot sites are to be set up in July and the organisers of the "Speakers' Forum" project hope to have up to 300 areas for soapbox orators available by the end of 2000. Shopping arcades, parks, bandstands and town centres are all expected to be used.

Some of the potential locations so far identified for a public debating area are; industrial areas with good public space, such as Middlesbrough and Coventry; historic sites such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Bath; developing areas including Shrewsbury, Ipswich, Darlington, and Carlisle; and recently pedestrianised cities such as Dundee and Kilmarnock. The Home Secretary, who set up a working party to draw up plans for an expansion in public debating areas, believes they provide greater accountability and help to make city and town centres safer and more accessible.

Mr Straw, said: "This Government is committed to the rejuvenation of towns and cities. This is a small but constructive step in the best British tradition of free speech and public debate. I have been holding meetings of this sort on a regular basis in Blackburn for more than 15 years and for me it can be an important and visible way of ensuring that politicians and voters connect." Armed with a microphone and loud hailer he usually gives 10 minutes of his thoughts before going into a question and answer session.

A working party set up by the Home Office, which includes police chiefs and local authority representatives, will announce at a conference in London today that they are drawing up guidelines for speakers' corners.

Alan Tallentire, who chairs the Association of Town Centre Management, which is heading the working group, said: "Speakers' corners make town centres more vibrant, successful and safer.

"It also gives more people the chance to make a difference and have their say. It gives ordinary fellows a platform and holds to account politicians."

John Major's soapbox helped to revitalise the debate about the merits of public speaking. While credited with helping him win the 1992 general election his secret weapon failed to stop Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

Lord Soper, considered one of the greatest soapbox speakers, died aged 95 last December. He began open-air preaching at Tower Hill in London in 1926. In the 1940s he started his famous orations at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Passers-by flocked to hear him condemn war, poverty, drink, gambling and capitalism.