Helen Harwood talks to Neil Wild, CMS Pioneer student and part of an award-winning town centre transformation team.
HH: So Neil, I saw you titled one of your recent portfolios ‘Not Afraid to Live’. That sounds intriguing, tell me more.
NW: Well the title is inspired by a quote from John Drane. He suggests the church is frequently not able to engage with the world, or to put it differently is not able to engage with life. Drane concludes that the church is more afraid of living than dying. I like the phrase “not afraid to live” as it captures the essence of mission. Seeing what God is doing in the world and joining in – living well – and for me this means being less focused on issues of eternity and personal salvation which inevitably leads to a focus on death and at times a withdrawal from life.
Ok, so tell us more about how you’ve been living then…
One of the many positives of the last couple of years for me has been to appreciate how my day to day life and in particular my work in the commercial property business can be part of God’s mission. The question, “What kind of world are we building?” posed in an article by researcher Anna Minton, is a really searching one. We are all involved in building something and I have been thinking how this question connects with how we partner with God in fulfilling his purpose of building a better world – the renewal of all creation.
Can you be a bit more specific?
In my work I have re-tuned my priorities away from helping wealthy property-owning clients get wealthier and instead to see town centres as my priority. Towns provide a focal point for communities. They represent meeting places, a place to do business and a mix of facilities providing for the needs of the community. They represent a hub. I have been aware of the challenges faced by town centres as they adjust to the structural changes taking place in how we do things. These changes are combining to destabilise the town centre as the hub of activity. The town centre needs to adjust itself and manage itself to accommodate and adapt to these changes. Through my influence on the use of property and its management I could contribute either positively or negatively to the world that is being built. With my focus on town centres and working as a town team alongside others I can play a part in reshaping (or renewing) our communities in a positive way.
Great, thanks, Neil, and I know an award has been won, could you tell us more, please?
The town of Wantage in South Oxfordshire won the award, not me personally. But yes I have contributed positively to its success. Over the last couple of years I have been fortunate to link up with a couple of people, each of whom has had a positive impact on my thinking in this context. These conversations led us to take the step of leasing a property ourselves to run a pop up shop in a town centre. A pop up shop is a town centre property where different independent retailers will open for a period of time, and then a new one will take their place. There is no long term commitment, no long term lease. It has a number of benefits but mainly that it produces a pipeline of occupiers for other empty property in the town. We’ve ended up so far taking on three shops, two in Wantage and one in Banbury. In Wantage this, along with some other enterprising activity by the Town Team, led to a significant reduction in the number of available premises which is the reason for the Department of Communities & Local Government making the award as part of its Great British High Streets initiative. Hopefully our work in other town centres such as Banbury, High Wycombe and some of the other towns in this region will also benefit from our work.
So you see this as part of your mission?
Yes. My colleague loves to call it the revival of a particular town centre. Seeing empty places come to life with something vibrant and enterprising has surely got to be part of God’s heart for a community.
And with Christmas just behind us, how do you connect consumer culture with your work?
This raises a number of questions for me. My work is certainly not simply about encouraging increased spending though. Towns reflect a number of uses and shops is one of these but shops of course provide a good place for us to buy gifts for each other. I encourage people to think carefully where they buy from. To support local independent businesses where the money is re-invested locally instead of supporting a national chain store or large superstore where the money doesn’t filter back into the local community in the same way.
Before I let you go, I hear you have some exciting family news.
Yes I do. The family is expanding from five to six, with our fourth child due in May!
And how can the community pray for you?
Well my wife, Carol, and I both have opportunities in our work lives we would like to progress but with another child on the way we both need to re-think our priorities and how we spend our time. Work life for both of us has been busy over the past year so in many ways we’d welcome the opportunity to slow down. As well as this impending excitement, one of our other children has needed us to devote a lot of time to them for a different reason, which we’ve been glad to do, but the pressures coming in from various directions are hard to handle at times. So prayer for us to be able to be ourselves and know who we are in God. Thank you for asking.
Thanks so much for talking to me, Neil, and sharing your vision. I will not look at the humble high street in the same light again.