The latest figures from the Local Data Company are headlined “Good and bad news”. The good news is that the bleeding has stopped (for now), but the bad news is it still hurts like hell. So 14.3% of shops are vacant on high streets and in town centres at the end of 2011, but at least this has stabilised. Though the LDC hint at worse to come.
A few other things in their summary report also caught my eye. The claim that 50% of all leases are up for renewal before 2015 must give some pause for thought, given retailers already voiced claims to be examining their portfolios. The rising influence of the internet and the continued increase in sales must also raise questions of what shops are needed and what they are needed for. The likely difficult future for consumer sales due to the recession and other issues adds to the headache. All point to the continued decline of the high street as the place to shop.
The picture in Scotland is slightly worse in absolute than for Great Britain as a whole, but the trends are the same.
One of the other things I caught up with after being away was the UK parliamentary debate on town centres (17th January), which can be found in Hansard. Quite a crowd was attracted, which says something about how politicians are beginning to feel about how they should feel about the high street. But some 6 hours of debate turned more into a Cook’s tour of English high streets than a dynamic issues driven discussion of what to do. Car parking seemed to be one issue that everyone raised but agreement about levelling the playing field polarised into discussion about the choice between adding costs to consumers in out of town locations or chopping an income stream for cash-strapped councils.
What seems to have been missed in the debate is the reality that there are structural changes underway and we need big and structural responses. Retail Week, last week, lead with Phil Wrigley, once of New Look claiming Mary Portas was “right diagnosis, wrong prescription” and that the high street is “moribund and irrelevant” and “in a real, genuine and irreversible crisis”. His prescription was to stop muddling through and turn many high streets over to residential use. Is this a vote winner by 2015?
With 1 in 7 shops vacant, the future looking grim and consumers doing other things, we have to begin to think in these terms. Some of these 1 in 7 are long-standing vacancies that really do not justify being in retail use analysis. Of the 6 in 7 shops that are occupied, some may be occupied by some transient and other uses that border retailing. The effect is not always a strong, focused, dynamic, marketed high street or place. A £1million challenge fund is not going to have that much effect, and will we willing to do this for all 700+ town centres, and would it have any impact? The TCRF in Scotland with £60m barely scratched the surface of what needed to be done, before being closed.
If the high street really is dying, then maybe we need to move quickly to put some of them out of their misery? And if we can put people back at the heart of places, then maybe that will help those high streets that remain. Muddling through is not an option, even with the best of intentions.