By John Worsey
It’s the cold, dark and drizzly end of a long, busy January day. But at the Portsmouth City Council offices in Guildhall Square, Councillor Steve Pitt’s enthusiasm is undimmed as we talk about the city’s future. Portsmouth born-and-bred, Steve used to run the music programme at The Cellars in Eastney. Now he’s the Deputy Head of Portsmouth City Council — we talk about the Council’s ambitions for the next decade.
‘Some people say, “Oh no, Debenhams is closing, that’s the end of Southsea.” But the world changes. Let’s listen to people. The community will drive what happens next through demand.’
Just look at Knight & Lee. Re-opening this year, it will feature small units for independent retail businesses, a networking lounge, co-working spaces and bookable meeting rooms, cinemas, a hotel, and a roof terrace bar. The owners of Debenhams will go to community consultation over that building’s future later this year. So watch out and make your voice heard!
‘235,000 people live in Portsmouth,’ Steve says. ‘That’s a critical mass that can influence change. You don’t just have to ask the Council to fix things. Make your own ideas public.’
Steve points to the success of independent brands like Southsea Bathing Hut and Baffled Coffee as examples of how locals can make an impact. He expects the regeneration of the Kings Theatre to cement Albert Road’s status as an attractive home for independent businesses. He agrees Portsmouth is lucky to have a street populated by indies, at a time of identikit high streets nationwide. That said, he’s also keen to note Commercial Road is doing better than many think – only two units are vacant, and changes to the street market are bringing new energy to the area.
A CITY OF CULTURE
‘We need to celebrate creativity in all its forms,’ Steve says. ‘This city is brilliant at it. But we don’t talk about it. For example — did you know Portsmouth had two artists exhibit at the Royal Academy last year; Sadie Tierney and Karl Rudziak?’
Steve was a driving force in getting Portsmouth Creates off the ground, with the City Council contributing 25% of its funding. It’s a Community Interest Company which exists to help ensure everyone gets to take part and enjoy what Portsmouth’s dynamic cultural scene has to offer.
Steve says the development of Portsmouth Creates is about ‘empowering the city’s creative community to be its own agent of change.’ Whatever happens with the Council and the economy in the future, this is a way of giving our creatives a toolkit to secure their own partnerships, funding, and opportunities. Look out for its first free public event, Portsmouth’s very own major light festival – We Shine Portsmouth – in November 2020.
‘Homelessness is a really good example of where we’re not getting the message across,’ Steve says. ‘We are getting grants from government for the outstanding work we’re doing in supporting our homelessness community.’
He explains, ‘People don’t necessarily perceive there to be a big change because the level of transience in the homeless community is very high. Our allocation of night beds is increasing, but homeless people come south in winter because the weather is better.
‘People are homeless for different reasons – mental health, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, job loss — you have to tackle it on an individual basis. We’ve got government funding to create two teams. One is already in place. In their first five weeks, they’ve got four individuals who had used our night shelters into permanent housing — one of them was long-term homeless. The second team will engage with those who aren’t coming to night shelters.’
‘Making the city greener is our number one
priority,’ Steve says. ‘The food waste trial has been massively successful, and we’ll be expanding it. The refuse lorry contract is not up til 2021, so we need to be pragmatic, but we’re committed to rolling it out across the city.’
Portsmouth shares plastic recycling facilities with other councils. Steve is keen to see all of them investing in a new modern facility. This will include getting a better disposal stream in place, so a more comprehensive range of items can be recycled.
Investing in public transport will help to lower carbon emissions. The Council is bidding to improve bus provision. Steve also cites a need for bike hubs, and wants to explore making electric scooters available to rent – an idea he’s discussed with Extinction Rebellion.
The upcoming Tipner West development is ambitious – a car-free community, in which you’ll step from your house into a shared, clean, green urban space. Steve notes, ‘It’s going to take time, but check out the plans online.’
The Council wants to run a public climate summit this year. It will also be paying attention to ideas from the Climate Change Board. Established to empower the community, the Board is independently chaired by the University of Portsmouth’s Professor Steve Fletcher, who also advises the UN on environment and sustainability issues.
Portsmouth enters the 2020s as a city with many challenges – but also full of opportunities. As the decade unfolds, we can look forward to living in a place that gradually becomes cleaner, greener, safer, healthier and happier. And, says Steve, ‘if you have an idea to make it better, get involved.’
Councillor Steve Pitt. Photo: Paul Windsor