STP Chief Officer Phil Prentice argues that retail trends in recent decades are not the sole cause of problems facing town centres – and that getting the right retail offer is only part of the solution.

Portents of doom, the death of the high street and the end of retail?

Retail has always been one of our most fascinating and fast paced industries, it isn’t the cause of the problems faced by the high street, and importantly it is only part of the solution. Retail is a shape shifter, it reinvents and repurposes in a never ending cycle to meet the current needs of its customers.

When Charles Dickens penned “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, his high street would have been an eclectic mix of fresh food markets, taverns, small scale tailors and tearooms, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. The early 20th Century saw the birth of the department store, the 1930’s saw the explosion of grocery chains and these were surpassed by the superstores, malls and destination retail that we know today. With wider societal changes bringing more home ownership, the motorcar, deindustrialisation, urbanisation, retail has delivered; with DIY hyperstores, industrial scale garden centres, car parts warehouses and grocery stores larger than football stadiums.

Over the last 20 years we have witnessed transformational change on our high streets in particular.

1995 saw the launch of Amazon as an online book retailer and in the same year eBay created the online auction platform. The growth of online retail since then has been rapid. Cheap imports, online platform developers, fulfilment and logistics have been the winners in all of that.

The internet along with poorly connected edge of town retail parks are often held up to be the main contributors to the decline of the high streets and town centres. However, this is a blunt acceptance which tends to mask broader issues such as the attractiveness of the town, the retail mix, the size and range of stores, the degree of convenience and accessibility for multi modal access, opening hours, cleanliness and the perception of safety, location of footfall creating uses such as leisure, public services, food and drink, transport, health, libraries and museums.

The internet will continue to be the main shape shifter for the decade ahead of us.

But also consider the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 – the stalwarts of a generation disappeared in a matter of a few years; Woolworths, Comet, JJB Sports, Game, Clintons Cards, Peacocks and BHS. Investors nervous, money tight.

Meanwhile, Westminster policy around austerity in effect took 25% of all disposal income out of shop tills through public sector job cuts and welfare reform, the VAT hike to 20%, more recent increases to minimum wage, rates revaluation, pension auto enrolment, it goes on.

This all leads me back to my initial point: retail is not the problem and that it is only part of the solution.

If we take it for granted that our once handsome and characterful town centres are still of value to society, that the history, heritage and culture of the built environment is too important to lose, then have a think about how we can collectively improve them.

There will be some set ingredients and some which are more random, however, the final product needs to deliver on a proposition demanded by the population it serves.

We will almost always require some form of convenience retail, the local grocer. Then there are retail services, the hairdresser, beautician, food and drink, clothing, travel agent, optician, lawyers and accountants. The last 3 years has seen a drop in the vacancy levels in Scotland’s town centres, aggressive discounters, café culture, and the return of family run niche independents.

If we add in some footfall creating uses and tighten up on poorly connected out of town sprawl, then we have a strong chance of reinvention. Lose the redundant peripheral retail space and replace it with housing and leisure uses, bring new communities and consumers back into town.

Concentrate your public services in the centre, deploy digital investment, encourage more community participation, be flexible around planning and collaborate.

Source: Chief Officer Blog

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