“It’s no ordinary shopping centre. It’s a laboratory." The Guardian reports on CounterCoin

Delighted to see the indefatigable Mike Riddell and his CounterCoin project (featured here about six months ago) be given a sensitive and detailed profile by Aditya Chakarbortty, in his "Alternatives" series. Some extracts: 

In a country that simply has too many shops, executives have little use for Newcastle and other places, from Dartford to Newport to Dewsbury. What, apart from shopping, will they do now? What, indeed, does a country built on debt and consumption do when it’s exhausted that model? These are questions that Westminster has barely even clocked, let alone tried to answer.

David Cameron got Mary “Queen of Shops” Portas to write a report on “distressed town centres”, then so roundly ignored her proposals that she attacked his “PR campaign”. Since 2011 there have been seven high street ministers in as many years. So weighty have been their interventions, I bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a high street minister.

Which leaves it up to towns to fix their own gutted centres, using whatever tools they can find. Dumfries has a “doon toon army” of locals bidding to buy derelict shops. In Newcastle, Riddell and his colleagues already have a plan. They’re turning York Place into a post-shopping centre.

Its anchor tenant – the big shop to draw in passing trade – isn’t an H&M or a Wilko, but a charity: the YMCA. Rather than a traditional charity shop, it’s selling jewellery and other work hand-made by local artists, and runs arts and crafts workshops for residents of all ages. And as of last Tuesday, the cornerstone cafe is Cultural Squatters, a social enterprise that markets itself as the “anti-Costa”. It serves instant coffee at £1 a mug alongside those Staffordshire specialities, lobby (stew) and oatcakes. Staff include adult volunteers with learning disabilities.

Where shopping centres are normally stuffed full of chains, York Place is now a hub for local independents. Where landlords usually demand maximum rent, Riddell has cajoled his London-based client into accepting two non-profits in return for reduced business rates.

t’s a pragmatic way of reclaiming commercial space for a community – and it’s buttressed by a reward scheme launched by Riddell and his colleagues at Manchester-based consultancy HometownPlus.

Called CounterCoin, it’s like a Tesco Clubcard – except you earn points not by spending, but by doing something for the community. Help out at a YMCA workshop, say, and you’ll get clay tokens that entitle you to bargain off-peak sessions at the neighbourhood bowling alley, or discounts from the local Spar on food about to pass its best-before date. “If we can dole out points for being a zombie consumer at Tesco, why can’t we give points for doing some good in the community?” says Riddell.

More here.