E-commerce: economic growth and empowerment of women and girls

This evening (18 January) I am a member of a panel at an online Royal Society of Arts (RSA) event looking at the topic of female growth and empowerment in the field of e-commerce.  The invitation came from Ann-Maree Morrison who is the co-author of a report on the topic.

“This event is open to everyone, and will be centred around the recent report which calls for ecommerce to be a sector in its own right, with accredited courses and funding, while also exploring issues relating to the economic empowerment of women and girls. RSA Fellow Ann-Maree Morrison will give a presentation on the report, which will be followed by observations from Ann-Maree’s fellow panellists. “

Given my interest in retail and 5 minutes to make some remarks I am focusing on retailing and e-commerce and am posing four questions.  Each of these is worth a seminar in its own right, so the notes below are superficial, but hopefully will lead into a wide-ranging and interesting discussion.

By way of background, I use the Office for National Statistics (ONS) chart on the internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales in the UK.  I have commented/used this chart before and new data will be out this Friday.

Source: Office for National Statistics

My four questions/areas for discussion:

What has been and is the impact of e-commerce on retail?

As can be seen in the graph the penetration of online is significant. There has been a replacement of some physical retail by online retail.  But this is not an either/or situation and there is a need for balance and accommodation of both forms.  Online will not entirely replace physical retailing, but enhances aspects of it. The impact of online though will not be wished away and the internet will not be de-invented.  Online has impacted all retail and all shopping, not just the high street, where it has added to pressures for change.

What sort of retailing do we want and why are we failing to achieve that?

Retailing is a reflection of society and culture and for decades we have valued a car borne, disaggregated and decentralised model of living.  We have penalised the operations of high street and smaller business and comparatively privileged others, and especially out of town businesses.  We have a choice to make about what we value, need and want in a social, cultural as well as an economic sense.

What is the (current and future) impact of the climate emergency on retailing and e-commerce?

We are in a climate emergency and our behaviours have led us to this point.  We now need to consider what behaviours are sustainable and which are not and make appropriate decisions accordingly.  Not all e-commerce is the same and not all forms of e-commerce have the same impacts on the planet.  We need to recognise this and adjust our thinking and behaviour to support the “right” sustainable components of e-commerce. 

Are there specific barriers/restrictions/biases against women or e-commerce advantages/opportunities for women that are different to those experienced generally?

It is not clear to me whether e-commerce is so distinct that the issues for women differ to the biases we know already exist and are/should be a focus for action.  We are all better when women are included/leading and we need females in e-commerce, but also in retailing generally.  E-commerce is changing rapidly and we need women to be involved, engaged and not to be left behind.  There is a key component of this for younger cohorts and ensuring access, support and in lighting imaginations. But are there specific things that e-commerce forces us to confront in this area? Or is it that we need to challenge stereotyping and inequality wherever it is found?  The last thing we need is for e-commerce as a sector/operations to perpetuate such things, so maybe given its rapid growth and change we need this specific focus.

Posted in Amazon, Climate Emergency, e-commerce, Education, Entrepreneurship, High Streets, Independents, Internet, Internet shopping, Multichannel, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Retailers, Retailing, Small Shops, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Conversation: UK Retailers Christmas Trading Updates

The University of Stirling is a supporter of The Conversation and I published a piece there on the 12th January about the recent UK retailer trading updates from Christmas. I reblog it below.

The starting point for the piece was the better than expected Christmas trading updates from Next and B&M, but as the week developed and the piece was being written so more positive news emerged from a wide range of retailers. The article therefore looks at some of the trends the updates were suggesting, and whilst not wanting to cast any shade on some excellent results, looks forward to the pressures, but also the possible better news, in 2023. Retailers and consumers face challenges, but there are also some very interesting things going on in retailing and in towns and high streets which provide more confidence about the evolving landscape. That is not to say that sections of the population are not clearly struggling and much work is needed to reduce disparities. Locally the recent opening of a number of independent stores seems to reflect a more national trend, with quite a lot of this activity not recorded in data which focuses on national chains and bi-annual snapshots.

Cost of living crisis: why it’s been a happy new year for UK retailers keeping up with changing shopping trends

Woman buying goods in a grocery store with a queue in the background.
Several UK retailers announced better than expected sales over the Christmas period. Nejron Photo/Shutterstock

The significance of Christmas to retailers’ bottom lines means that updates on trading during this time are always closely watched. This year, the cost of living crisis has weighed heavily on shops. As well as inflation (especially in food), energy, pay and other cost pressures on retailers, transport and postal strikes and the ongoing impact of Brexit also caused concern in the run-up to Christmas 2022 that the retail losers would far outweigh the winners.

But results – particularly among clothing and some non-food categories – have pointed to a more positive picture than anticipated before the festive period. British retail giant Next produced a downgraded estimate of annual profits last autumn, but its Christmas trading update points to strong sales – and in its stores more than on online. Budget store B&M also reported excellent Christmas trading figures as did retailers as diverse as Boots, Greggs, The Fragrance ShopCard FactorySeasalt and Oxfam.

Grocery shopping figures for December showed stellar performances from Aldi and Lidl, while Iceland also did well. Market leader Tesco performed strongly and Marks & Spencer produced far better than expected results in both food and non-food. In further good news, independent bookstore numbers are at a ten-year high.

It is early days and there are more retailers to report, of course – certainly, the data for Morrisons and Waitrose showed comparatively poor Christmas sales numbers. Plus, several retailers, including online furniture shop Made and clothing company M&Co, did not survive 2022, while others such as homeware seller Wilko were forced to refinance or had to be rescued like clothing brand Joules and McColl’s, the convenience shop operator that was bought by Morrisons last year.

Retailer Christmas figures are also unaudited, focus on sales not profit and can cover different dates depending on the retailer. But, in general, results so far have been better than anticipated. This could be because consumers have started to change their habits in the following ways in response to the cost of living crisis.

1. Searching for value

The effects of inflation have caused more consumers to search for value, causing many to switch to discount retailers and own-brand products, which are typically perceived as offering value. Some of the comparative sales increases over Christmas were due to rising prices and thus while spending is up in total, the number of items bought is not.

2. Shop local

The impact of the pandemic, combined with recent transport and postal service strikes have caused a switch to local spending. When pandemic restrictions were in effect, people explored their local areas and used local and independent retailers, something that has continued with working from home. Difficulties accessing some larger towns and cities by public transport and uncertainty over postal deliveries due to strikes has increased the importance of shopping local.

Figures for December show the highest footfall since the pandemic, with a notable bounce on high streets. Online retailing may have had a weaker Christmas boost than previous years because consumers wanted to visit stores, were uncertain about delivery and wanted to shop around for the best bargains.

3. Buying with credit

There is some evidence that people used credit cards and savings to ensure a good Christmas. The slowdown in the housing market, and the desire to reward ourselves during the first Christmas without pandemic restrictions for three years, combined to encourage those who could to make the effort to spend.

Men wearing Christmas jumper/sweater and eyeglasses holding credit card and using smart phone, laptop, christmas present in foreground.
Some shoppers put Christmas on their credit card in 2022. Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

With all this changing consumer behaviour, well-run retail businesses that manage their product offerings, supply chains and stock levels to hit the above “sweet spots” for consumer demand did well during Christmas 2022. Those who were less effective or perceived to be less consumer focused, suffered.

But there is also a clear and growing disparity among consumers. There is no doubt that, for many, last Christmas was a good one. But at the same time record numbers of people are in food and fuel poverty, and large numbers are really struggling to cover basics, with consequent effects on health and wellbeing.

A uneven ride ahead

And so, while more positive than expected figures many retailers should be welcomed, they probably mask future problems. Even in its upbeat Christmas results, Next pointed to possible price rises in the coming months and concerns about affordability, as has M&S previously. Sainsbury’s, Greggs and Tesco are among retailers that have recently increased shopfloor wage rates, reflecting a tight labour market but also reacting to the cost of living struggles of their staff.

Among these economic headwinds, however, there are indications that inflation should decline in 2023 and that energy prices may not rise as fast as predicted, or could even fall. The UK may also see an end to recent interest rate rises during this year.

In January 2022, the economy looked fairly stable, but got worse very quickly. Now in January 2023 the hope is that things will improve faster than anticipated. Any gains will be hard won. As the economy continues to adjust to the effects of COVID and Brexit, while also absorbing the cost of living crisis, further change in 2023 will not be spread evenly across all retailers, nor all shoppers.

Posted in Aldi, Christmas, City Centres, Consumer Change, Consumers, Cost of Living, Covid19, Discounters, Grocery, High Streets, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Market Shares, Marks and Spencer, Next, Retailers, Retailing, The Conversation, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Changing Climate through Ice and Seeds

I try to use my break at Christmas and New Year to catch up on some reading that is non work based (whether administrative or academic work). A couple of books had caught my eye some weeks ago and they formed the basis of my reading this year.

On the surface they are very different, being focused on topics that at one glance seem to be poles apart.

The Iain Cameron (@theiaincameron) book (the Vanishing Ice) is about his fascination with snow in Scotland and more particularly the persistence (or now non-persistence) of snow all year round. The subtitle – diaries of a Scottish snow hunter – gives a flavour of the content. Some of his photos may well be familiar to you from a range of outlets.

The Adam Alexander (@vegoutwithadam) book (the Seed Detective) concerns the origin and maintenance of vegetables and in particular the preservation of heritage varieties of seed. Again, the subtitle – uncovering the secret histories of remarkable vegetables – is aptly descriptive. As regulars of this blog (and of twitter) will recall, in a very small way I have shown an interest in heritage seeds and their produce.

I found both books to be fascinating individually and with components that resonated with me in distinct ways. In their own ways, each are inspirational. It was the common components though that interested me more. Both books are about an obsession – snow/ice and authentic seed varieties – that shouts about curiosity, commitment, intelligence and information. In an age of the superficial this detailed painstaking construction of knowledge and history is essential in my view, and of course is likely to attract an academic (and especially one with a collection of Argos catalogues perhaps). Whether it is measuring snow as it melts in Scotland (and the UK) or chasing down original and historically adapted seeds, dedication, commitment and enthusiasm seem essential (and come through strongly in both books).

Secondly though, and at a level I had not expected at the outset, both books are warnings about climate change and the climate emergency. Reading Iain Cameron’s book and the history of snow persistence in Scotland until recently, one can not but recognise the changed climate. Likewise, though, in Adam Alexander’s volume, the importance of climate and locality (terroir) on crops and the dangers of monocultures is writ large, particularly as climate changes globally and of course locally. Both books have at their heart a concern about the changing climate and the potential impact this will have on places and people. We need action(s).

At a personal level the Vanishing Ice is fascinating but there is little I can see myself getting actively involved in – the pictures of some of the ridges and places visited terrify me (and that’s before I fell down a small mound in Orkney). I have though tried to grow some of the seeds mentioned in The Seed Detective and am experimenting this year with a more widespread collection of my own seeds. I don’t grow much but every little helps perhaps. We will see how successful some of this experimentation is. It is more interesting than buying clone plants from the supermarket for certain.

Alexander A (2022) The Seed Detective. Chelsea Green. ISBN 9781915294005 (https://theseeddetective.co.uk/product/my-book/)

Cameron I (2021) The Vanishing Ice. Vertebrate Publishing. ISBN 9781839810879 (https://www.adventurebooks.com/products/the_vanishing_ice)

Posted in Books, Climate Emergency, Community, Food, Gardens, Home Growing, Ice, Real Seeds, Scotland, Seeds, Snow | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2022: the stirlingretail.com year in retrospect

This time of the year I normally produce my last post and look back at the activity on the blog during the calendar year. My reviews for 2020 and 2021 covered the two years with the most visitors the site has ever received. I assume this came both from lockdown and the pandemic and people having more time to browse, but also the release, work, consequences and debates around my report into the New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres for the Scottish Government.

My review of last year concluded with the wish that 2022 would be a Happy New Year, but for so many it has been anything but, with the war in Ukraine, the accelerating impacts of Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis and various economic and social woes.

2022 saw fewer visitors to the site than the record-breaking previous two years, but it was still the third highest year since I began in 2011. As with last year the top 10 posts contain only 4 new posts, again suggesting a longevity for some of the previous posts. The themes are broadly the same – this is not that unexpected given the topics covered – but some of the longer lasting posts do rather surprise me.

Looking at the top 10 or so posts, I can draw some categories out (last year we had Food Retailing Change, A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres, Retail Change and The Outliers (or history?)):

Local Controversy – Stirling All at C

The number one post this year was on the decision by local councillors in Stirling to permit the development of an out of town Asda at Crookbridge. The original post was followed by another (#4) on the same topic and the hypocrisy I felt over the decision. My flounce out of the Stirling Town Centre Working Group as a consequence saw me on the front page of the local paper, probably had zero effect but did make me feel better.

I do have to say I felt somewhat vindicated when the decision was overturned in November and the project rejected/refused by the Scottish Government Minster on Call-in (and my post partially on that is #12 this year).

This theme of out of town development and retail strategy generally, town centres, planning (National Planning Framework 4) and the response to A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres was a large part of the blog and posts on recent aspects of these come in as well at #11 (Retail Strategy for Scotland), #13 (the report of the Inquiry into Retail and Town Centres in Scotland) and #15 (Town Centre Action Plan 2).

Food Retailing Market Shares

For a good number of years I have been using Kantar data to consider the changing market shares of food retailers in Great Britain. Two posts, Grocery Market Shares in the UK 2020 and Twenty-One Years of UK Retail Grocery Market Share have been regulars in the most read posts each year. It is no different this year with them being placed #3 and #2 respectively (#1 and #4 last year). The annual updates in summer each year seem to do less well, especially since I switched from describing them as covering the UK to be the more accurate GB. This year the annual update does not feature in the top ten again, but another historical post from 2019 (UK Grocery Market Share 1997-2019) does (at #6). There seems to be an enduring interest in UK food retailing market shares and their change (probably mainly from students), and less interest in the accuracy of UK vs GB!

Retail History

Two posts with an historical bias have also regularly featured in the top ten in any year and this year is no different. My review of a book London Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade (#5) is of continuing interest and the discussion of Co-operative Tokens, Sports Direct and the Bristol Pound (#10) despite being an eclectic mix, continues to attract readers.

This year they have been joined (in #9 place) by another review, this time of the issues facing our places as their core department stores fall vacant and are subject to potential re-use and demolition. This “Place Vandalism” is both retail history and current town centre change and policy and the report by Save Britain’s Heritage is well worth reading.

The Outliers

This year’s outliers are on two very different subjects, with one being a very recent post and one from a while ago, but which got currency due to events. The recent post is on Who Owns Scotland’s retailing (#7), a summary of work by The Ferret and The Herald. The older post is on Checkout the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (#8), a post from 2020 looking forward to the June 2022 Platinum Jubilee and reflecting on the 25th Jubilee in 1977 and the moves by Tesco that redefined their strategy and took them to their #1 place in UK food retailing.

It just leaves me to wish everyone a Happy New Year, thank those that comment and contact me about the blog and specific posts and to yet again hope that 2023 is an improvement on what has gone on in 2022 in so many ways.

Posted in 1977, Bristol Pound, Cooperative Tokens, Department Stores, Food Retailing, Grocery, Local Authorities, Market Shares, MIlk, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Places, Planning, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail Strategy, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Stirling, Stirling Council, Tesco, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Urban History, Who Owns Scotland? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Season’s Greetings 2022

As Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) I get to put a Christmas message in the final bulletin of the year which goes out to members. This is an appropriate opportunity to reflect briefly on the last year generally and for STP in particular and I thought I might reproduce it here. More widely may I wish all readers wherever you are in the world, season’s greetings and a Happy New Year. May 2023 be an improvement on 2022.

The last year has been a busy and interesting time for Scotland’s towns and Scotland’s Towns Partnership. Whilst there have been some very positive steps, the situation remains challenging, not least because of the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and the steep rises in costs, inflation and the cost of living for consumers.

In May we saw the joint Scottish Government/COSLA response to “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”, accepting the approach and adding their endorsement for change and action in the form of TCAP2. As well, some of the new policy landscape had emerged in the Draft National Planning Framework 4 and in November the revised version added further strengthening.

STP’s leadership and delivery of Scotland Loves Local and the Loves Local gift card programme has proved highly effective. Whilst more can be done to, and with, the platform, Scotland Loves Local has lodged itself firmly in the consciousness of consumers, businesses and in the armoury of local authorities, not least in helping tackle the cost of living crisis with targeted interventions.

We also finally were able to hold our first in-person Annual Conference since 2019 when a sell-out crowd descended on Kilmarnock. TCAP2 and Scotland Loves Local were used to structure the day and it was incredible to see the positivity and energy around Scotland’s towns.

The progress we have made in recent years in the teeth of a global pandemic, major disruptions such as Brexit and geo-political disturbances has been phenomenal. Scotland’s towns have pulled together despite these wider challenges, and whilst there is more to do nationally and locally, we should not underestimate what has been achieved. With stability in these external events, a more positive policy framework and government support, who knows what more can be done.

Town by town, local people and communities, businesses and place-makers are making a real difference to their places and people’s lives. STP exists to coordinate, amplify and celebrate the great work that is done at this local level. Again this year I have been amazed and humbled by what is being done across Scotland.  Thanks for all your efforts.

May I wish you all the very best for this festive season and for a successful, prosperous and hopefully more peaceful 2023. 

Professor Leigh Sparks, Chair, Scotland’s Towns Partnership

Posted in Bids Scotland, Christmas, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Christmas and the Cost-of-Living Crisis: How will retailers cope?”

The past two year’s holiday seasons were tough for the UK’s retail sector, with lockdowns and resulting changes in consumer behaviour. I covered the previous Christmas periods in two pieces for the Economics Observatory (2020 and 2021) and followed this in the summer of 2022 with a look at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on retailing. All my Economics Observatory pieces can be found using the links here.

I was recently asked to take a look at the impact of the cost-of-living crisis again but in the light of the 2022 Christmas season for retailers. The post was put up on the Economics Observatory on Wednesday 14th December and can be found here. As always, reading the full post there is the best, and I will only give a flavour of the content here.

The UK’s retail sector has seen a wave of problems emerging throughout the year. Optimism in early 2022 that the worst effects of the pandemic might have subsided has given way to pessimism about trading in the wake of deteriorating economic circumstances.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has sparked a cost of living crisis. Retailers were already having to cope with difficulties in supply caused by Brexit, Covid-19 and global shipping disruptions. This combination of challenges has meant that the smooth movement of products around the world has been replaced by uncertainty, volatility and cost increases. Brexit, for example, has significantly driven up the price of food in the UK.

Source: ONS

Consumers have seen inflation rise rapidly, notably in food. Hikes in the Bank of England base rate have increased the cost of borrowing for both retailers and consumers. Mortgage rates have also risen, and the Bank has indicated potential further increases, with inflation set to remain high for several months. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has said that the UK is already in recession and will remain so until 2024. What’s more, we are seeing the worst drop in living standards since records began.

These are very unusual times for retailers and there is virtually no managerial expertise of similar circumstances on which to draw. Inflation is at a 40-year high, while consumer sentiment is around a 40-year low. At the same time, supply certainties have been broken and interest rates are at their highest level in 15 years. High street retailer Marks and Spencer has described the situation as ‘the gathering storm’ for shops. This confluence of issues has not been experienced by retail managers and operators in a generation.

The problems that retailers and consumers have faced over the past year have already resulted in notable changes to purchasing. There has been a long-run slowdown in the volume of products purchased in retail as consumers have seen their budgets shrink. The price of Christmas basics such as mince pies, Christmas puddings and Christmas chocolates are increasing above the average rate of inflation.

Source: ONS

Given the widespread nature of the economic issues affecting the country, it is tempting to think that everyone is struggling and suffering in the same way. But this is not the case. It is hard to see how the most well-off in society are affected. There is money around and people are willing to spend. During the pandemic, sales and spending patterns were disrupted and those with money saved more.

At the other end of the financial spectrum, people are really struggling. The use of food banks has soared. The development of ‘warm banks’ points to other problems with affording basic needs. Food inflation is outstripping broader measures, and this affects lower-income families more as a greater proportion of their income is spent on necessities. More people are being drawn into difficulty and struggling to get by. There is also evidence that the cost-of-living crisis is exacerbating health inequalities, driven mainly by income and poverty.

So will it be a good Christmas?

As with every Christmas season, there will be retail winners and losers. There is money around (for some) and people want to have a good festive time. But the wider economic pressures mean that this will not be the case for all. In simple terms, retailers are in search of consumers with money, and consumers will be looking for retailers with the right products at the right price. This is the essence of retailing and not every business will be able to get it right all the time.

Over the festive period and beyond, we should be concerned about the increasing disparities among people and places, and their experiences. These gaps are widening, and the consequence of this turbulent year has been to accelerate the differences. But retailers and their shops will be trying their very best to ensure that all consumers can get products that they want for Christmas, whatever their circumstances.

Posted in Aldi, Brexit, Christmas, Consumers, Cost of Living, Costs, Discounters, Economics Observatory, Energy Costs, ESRC, Food, Food Retailing, Inflation, Lidl, Market Shares, Places, Retailers, Retailing, Shopping, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who Owns Scotland’s Towns, High Streets and Shopping Centres?

One of the issues raised in the recent report by the Economy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish Parliament concerned the lack of transparency over the ownership of much of the property in Scotland. I noted this in the previous post. The issue of “absentee landlords” is not a new one and indeed featured in one of the recommendations of the National Review of Town Centres (the Fraser Review) a decade or so ago. Absenteeism causes delays, difficulties and obstructions to getting things done in town centres, hence the call from the committee for more transparency – something the government says it is working on.

In the week prior to the committee’s report being published, The Herald and The Ferret combined to investigate and report on the ownership of Scotland’s towns, cities, high streets and shopping centres. As the introduction to a week-long series of reports stated:

“The future of our high streets and our urban areas is a key issue as we see an increasing number of vacant properties, derelict and run-down sites and debates over how these areas are developed. This is an emotive issue, one that matters”.

The series of articles, posts and podcasts is well worth taking a look at. I can not cover the detail fully here. Through the week it focused on various aspects of the registration and ownership of property in Scotland urban and retail spaces (see for example ownership of vacant properties, shopping centres with offshore links). The data was drawn from the Scottish Assessors Association and whilst there may be issues of detail and timing the broad points were clear.

Large swathes of Scotland’s high streets and shopping centres are registered and/or owned by firms based in tax havens. Tracking these down can be hard. The firms may be compliant with the existing law, but that is not the issue. Some of the managers of those assets may also be highly engaged in their towns; the issue comes rather with those who are not interested or actively avoiding being found.

Scottish local authorities were also found to own large numbers of vacant properties and spaces. In some cases, sites had “lain empty for years”. The benefits of community ownership were noted, but also the difficulties of achieving this – some of our best examples have succeeded despite the system not because of it.

One of the final pieces in the week offered five solutions to “fix the high street”:

  1. Incentives for investment
  2. Find new uses for property above shops
  3. Use old retail spaces for city centre living
  4. Create streets instead of shopping centres. But guard our public space
  5. Support community ownership.

The focus on tax havens points to a problem – distant, remote owners who are not engaged in trying to improve their buildings or towns. You cannot blame them for operating in tax havens per se, as that is the fault of our regulation and laws. Surely, we can alter these to both shed sunlight on ownership but also clamp down on tax havens and the way property is used in this way. We want and need engaged owners; our towns and communities deserve better.

Secondly, the range of local authority ownership points to a missed opportunity and possibility. We need towns to have plans for their future and the use of some of this space as catalysts for the community and community enterprises would seem feasible. These assets need to be brought back into use at a far greater pace and with more community benefit than currently often seen.

Finally, the five steps to fix the high street are all very well, and indeed they chime with things I have long argued for (and appear in A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres and TCAP2). But it is a mistake in my view to separate the problems in-town from the out-of-town advantages.  We need to change our approach fundamentally. Why do we talk always about incentives but rarely also disincentives? We cannot simply demand government throws money at the issue (though there is a place for this as seen this with some of the TCAP 2 and Place Based Investment Programme Actions). It is incumbent on all organisations to think about their actions around town centres and locations, but also for governments to be serious about the breadth of change needed if we are to benefit town centres, communities and the climate. That requires commitment to some tough choices and needs us to think more broadly than incentives. This is true of all levels of government and of asset managers of all forms in our towns.

List of ownership of Scotland's shopping centres
From The Ferret and The Herald Investigation
Posted in Community Ownership, Dumfries, Government, High Streets, Landlords, Legislation, Local Authorities, Midsteeple Quarter, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Out of Town, Place Based Investment Programme, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Shopping Centres, Streets, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Urban, Vacancies, Who Owns Scotland? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Inquiry into Retail and Town Centres in Scotland

In January 2022 the Economy and Fair Work Committee of the Scottish Parliament began its preparation and work into its “Inquiry into Retail and Town Centres in Scotland”.  As this blog has covered before, I gave evidence to the Inquiry in March 2022 (my opening statement here, and the official record of the session here).  A number of other sessions with others and site visits took place through to the summer, with the report being published on 29th November 2022.

The report makes interesting, if perhaps not unsurprising reading.  It aligns very closely with both my evidence and “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres” and is supportive of the Town Centre Action Plan 2 (TCAP2) which has emerged from this work (see also my blog posts on these, here and here).  As would be expected there are areas of disagreement (amongst those giving evidence, the committee and with the issues themselves) but broadly this is a supportive report on the range of work underway.

My reading suggests a number of areas of particular focus and interest.

  1. A clearly supportive stance on town centres (and not solely for economic reasons) and a recognition of the challenges they face and the need to re-balance the costs and opportunities of town centres and out-of-town development.  Whilst some disagreements existed (taxation/charges, moratorium on out-of-town developments, the statutory place of town centres in National Planning Framework 4), the thrust is clear – we have to do better for our town centres.  A consistent theme around the problems of Non-Domestic Rates (NDR) was recognised by the committee.
  2. The committee does push the Scottish Government in a number of areas.  The need to align activities within government is made clear and at points a lack of clarity and responsibility is identified amongst organisations.  The need for clear funding for TCAP2 delivery is stated.  The recently established Retail Industry Leadership Group is welcomed but concerns are raised (perhaps prematurely as it is only getting started now) over its membership, coverage, knowledge and plan of delivery.  The committee pushes for detail in a number of places.
  3. There is a concern over tools and how to use them.  The decline in planning functions and resources is noted, as are the disagreements over the sufficiency or resources of existing approaches and tools.  For example, are Compulsory Purchase Orders not much used because they are not fit for purpose or because there are no resources to implement them? Much is also made of the difficulties of dealing with property ownership in town centres (and I will post more on this in my next post on this blog), both in terms of who to deal with, and how to get action.
  4. Finally there is the issue of e-commerce and online activities.  The lack of e-commerce take-up and support in Scotland is noted by the committee with a call for improvements in both targeted at smaller enterprises.  The issue of an online tax is mooted, and receives mixed reaction.  The key for me is not to see this as “simply” a re-balancing of the physical/digital spaces, but more as a reflection of the changed nature of the economy, and a necessary adjustment to the economic realities.

At almost a recommendation/conclusion a page, this is a detailed report.  It ploughs lines we know, and are working on, but it is good to see cross-party support for the direction and especially for the recognition that:

“the actions, focus and shifts to achieve the vision for Scotland’s towns are multi-faceted and will require to be owned and driven over successive Parliamentary sessions to reverse the decades-long decline”.

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Barclay Review, BIDS, High Streets, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Non-domestic rates, Out of Town, Place Based Investment Programme, Place Principle, Retail Change, Retail Strategy, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Out-of-Town Retailing: National Planning Framework (NPF) 4 and Stirling (again)

The 8th November saw the publication of the revised National Planning Framework 4 – the national spatial and planning strategy for Scotland. It will now be the subject of further parliamentary discussion before hopefully being approved.

This revision is the result of a year-long process of consultation and reflection. About a year ago, I gave some initial reactions to the original draft as the first in a series of three linked posts (the others on the question of retail impact assessment and the need for a more radical reflection on the existing situation). In January 2022 I followed my initial reactions to NPF4 up with a more considered set of reflections as I prepared to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee (the official report of the oral evidence session which I attended is available here, and the final report of the Committee into NPF4 is available here). In that post I suggested six areas for development of NPF4:

  • Tighter language
  • Re-consideration of (retail) impact approaches
  • Closing of loopholes
  • Alignment with other policy/strategy
  • Delivery and action plan development
  • Stronger role of community voices.

The newly published revision of NPF4 is accompanied by an extensive reflection on the wide range of general and specific points received in the consultation. It is impossible here to do justice to the range of these or the work that has gone into the revision.

Looking at the revised NPF4 it is heartening to see a lot of progress in some of my six areas. The language is certainly more directive, and alignment, and delivery are more central. The revision has I think a stronger place focus (though I regret the loss of “distinctive places” as a separate policy approach) and is clearer on the principles and possible issues, as for example the 20-minute neighbourhood and the problems with drive thru’s.

As ever, it will be the operation on the ground that will decide the effect NPF4 has. Here I do have some concern over the question of impact, in thayt I am not sure that my concerns expressed last year on retail impact assessments have fully gone away. Whilst the language is much stronger in the revised NPF4 and Town Centre First and the Place Principle are clear drivers, there remains scope for a Local Development Plan to do odd things and for quantitative “deficiency” to be used as a lever for out-of-town development. One hopes this will not be the case, given the clear thrust of the overall NPF4 approach and the wider policies with which it links, but my prior experience with some local authorities gives me pause. We must align all levels of the approach.

As an example, there was some press coverage last week about Scotland banning drive thru’s and out of town retailing, but this will be unclear until practice settles down and much may depend on local actors – which brings us to Stirling.

My two posts of last February that followed my appearance at the Parliamentary Committee were about the situation in Stirling (and in particular the over-ruling by members of officers in regard to a proposed major out-of-town Asda development) illustrated my concern about questionable local decision making destroying national, local and good policy intent. The posts (Stirling – all at C and Stirling- still all at C) focused on local decision-making and policy approaches. This decision to permit the out-of-town superstore, was in March 2022 called-in by the Scottish Government and last week saw their decision on the application (decision letter here and newspaper coverage here).

I was very pleased to note that the Minister agreed with the Reporter and refused planning permission. The grounds revolved around the Retail Impact Assessment and the Local Development Plan and inter alia the change in retailing and consumer behaviours since the late 2000s and during the pandemic. It was very positive to see the Minister making this decision, and one hopes it sends a clear signal for others. One hopes that this is the end of this matter, but that remains to be seen. The direction of NPF4 would certainly suggest that such developments should be consigned to history.

So overall I think it was a very good week, with a revised and strengthened national framework and some sense on a controversial local decision. It will take time to fully read NPF4 (and its implementation plan) and I may have further thoughts. Likewise, the reporter’s report into the Crookbridge site at Stirling is an interesting read and may warrant a further exploration of some of the issues.

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Asda, City Centres, Climate Emergency, Food Retailing, Land Use Planning, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Out of Town, Place Principle, Retail Impact Assessments, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Sequential Approach, Spatial Planning, Stirling, Stirling Council, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Scotland’s Towns Conference 2022

Scotland’s Towns Conference 2022, Scotland’s Towns Partnership with partners

Three long years after the last such event, we were finally able to host Scotland’s Towns Conference in person. On Wednesday 16th November a sell-out crowd of over 220 people made their way to the impressive Centrestage in Kilmarnock (Scotland’s largest Community Led Asset Transfer) to listen, debate, discuss, meet, learn and advise about all things town and town centre related.

For once, I was able to sit back and take it all in, having no speaking role. What follows are my reflections on what I heard. I am not focusing on the detail as I could not do justice to the breadth and depth of the speakers, nor of some of the discussions, but instead consider some broad thoughts.

The conference keynote kicked it all off, with Tom Arthur MSP, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, welcoming delegates and pointing to the many good things underway, despite the challenges we all face economically. He focused to start with on the revised National Planning Framework 4 (more from me on this towards the end of this week) and the very strong support that this provides for town centres. He allied this though to the rise in and need for localism, community empowerment and engagement and wealth building and for enhanced connectivity and collaboration in places.

Tom Arthus MSP, addressing Scotland's Towns Conference 2022
Tom Arthur MSP, addressing Scotland’s Towns Conference 2022

The breakout sessions of the conference (the main components of the day’s discussions) focused on the themes from A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres – Climate and Net Zero, Creative Towns, Streets and Spaces, Digital Towns, Town Centre Living and Enterprising Communities. They all showcased great local work on the ground under each of the themes. Yes, there are barriers and challenges (and in some councils these again seem to be self-inflicted – the one that stood out for me was the council that objected to its own town centre social housing scheme), but the abiding impression was the local positivity over what can be achieved. Throughout the day this was also seen in the showcasing of the excellent work underway in East Ayrshire and Kilmarnock. Real differences are being made on the ground.

The breakout sessions were supported by a plenary presentation by Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director of Portland Design who focused on Future-ready retailing and how to reimagine the customer experience, rebuild retail spaces and reignite our shopping malls and streets.

The theme of making a difference locally was also evident in the finale of the conference, the Scotland Loves Local awards. Winners (and runners-up) in all the categories have done amazing work in their communities and all awards were richly deserved. No-one though could but be moved by the winner of the High Street hero award – Marion Gilliland – and the film about her shop, work, passion and love for Cumnock and its inhabitants. This was a fitting end to a great return to an in-person Scotland’s Towns Conference.

The 2022 winners of the Scotland Loves Local Awards are (and you can learn about their stories and activities here:

And thanks to all the sponsors of these awards:

Posted in Community, Community Assets, community wealth building, Creative Places, Digital, High Streets, Land Use Planning, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Places, Retail Change, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Streets, Streetscapes, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments