When the story broke, furious Peterborians left over 100 comments to the tune of "You could not make this up, sheer madness!" and "Words fail me!". I often get the feeling that 90 per cent of people who comment on the Evening Telegraph's website do so because they're against every single decision the council makes and really enjoy pointing this out (and when they're not doing this, they're furiously submitting outraged comments on the Daily Mail's website), but reading through the comments made me genuinely sad at the amount of sexism and patronising language on show. Many people commenting said that opening a Women's Enterprise Centre is 'sexist', 'discriminates against men' and ''; it was intimated on a couple of occasions that the council should be concentrating on creating jobs for men instead. As was pointed out at the Feminism In London conference last Saturday, recession poses a big threat to women's rights - equal pay and women's services are seen as less important as focus returns to men. Surely an organisation which offers support and advice and empowers women in business can only be a good thing? The centre, which is to be funded by the East of England Development Agency and based on the successful Women's Employment Enterprise and Training Unit in Norwich, could certainly help to drum up new employment opportunities and raise aspirations.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before people commenting in support of the enterprise initiative were accused of being 'feminist nutjobs' and someone even seemed to think they were being accused of being a 'raging lesbian' (I'm not quite sure where this came from either). I like to call it Jeremy Clarkson Syndrome - you know, when generally privileged members of society really enjoy railing against the 'attacks on their rights' as men and how Britain is the worst place to be right now if you're white, male and middle class? That's the one. Cue comments on how the council should start opening 'Polish, Lithuanian, Croation, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, Afghanistan, Iraqi, Iranian, Gay, Lesbian etc etc etc Enterprise Centre[s]'.
Council leader Marco Cereste offered his opinions on the matter yesterday in an attempt to settle the matter:
"If we continue to be short-termist in Peterborough, we will end up as we are now with shopping centre shops empty, educational attainment only average and the aspirations of our community no higher than at the moment.
"Wouldn't that be really sad when this tremendous city really deserves the life and vibrancy that other cities have?"
Nevetheless, the debate rages on, with several readers writing outraged letters to the editor.
Many (less offensive) commenters felt that the enterprise centre is not the best use of a unit in a city centre in dire need of new and exciting retail attractions - but as Cllr Cereste has pointed out, there are many other empty shops that Panasonic could use. Peterborough certainly has some serious socioeconomic problems and efforts towards regeneration are being made, but we've been hit hard by the recession with many businesses closing down - from companies employing over a thousand to small branches of retail chains. There are already numerous specialist and department stores selling electrical goods both in the city centre and on retail parks further out of town which has made me wonder - do we even need yet another one, particularly a premium brand whose products retail for considerable sums of money? I know the council also wants to focus on bringing 'high end' shops to the city, but I'm inclined to think the Women's Enterprise Centre is a better use for the premises at present.
A central and conspicuous position will ensure the new Women's Enterprise Centre is better used. Peterborough already has a Women's Centre already which deals with many different areas of support, runs courses and helps a lot of women - but very few people I know actually know where it is or what it does. It's actually on the outskirts of the city centre, but easy to miss if you don't know where to go. Having the new centre on one of the Peterborough's main streets would encourage women to visit and make it more easily accessible. I genuinely hope that the initiative will bring success, independence and empowerment to women in my city - it's just so frustrating and saddening to see the sort of opposition ideas like this come up against.