Given it was the hottest July day ever in the UK, it was some relief for the audience at the latest National Retail Planning Forum (NRPF) seminar to be indoors in air-conditioned luxury at Carter Jonas, just off teeming and steaming Oxford Street. There was a high price to pay however for the cool; four hours of discussion and presentation on town centres, including an ‘academic viewpoint’ from myself.
The Institute for Retail Studies has worked with the NRPF almost since its inception and it was good to catch up with old faces and meet new ones. Our work has mainly been around the knowledge base and briefing reports and we continue to do these on request.
The title of the seminar was ‘rescuing town centres in the light of changing retail trends’. As regular readers might anticipate I have problems with the idea of ‘rescue’ and also of an over-reliance on seeing the retail sector (the ‘high street’) as both the problem and the saviour of places. Throw in the variability in performance and resilience and we all have to recognise that town centres need re-thinking, in the round, from the ground up and with local involvement and solutions. Government can set the framework and could do more pulling on the levers but local, community centred approaches have to be the way forward (and please don’t call this local devolution, as so patronisingly often happens).
This familiar territory formed the basis of my talk which opened the session, and can be found here. For an English audience it hopefully opened up some of our Scottish thinking. Though hearing Michael Bach describe me as ‘surprisingly optimistic’ did stump me later on!
Anna Rose (Milton Keynes Council and Senior Vice President, Planning Officers Society) followed with a presentation on the rather unique case of Milton Keynes. I had missed that the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre is now a listed building. Anna covered the changing retail trends and noted that Milton Keynes due to its location and infrastructure was benefitting heavily from internet fulfilment centres in employment terms.
Steve Quartermain (Chief Planner, Communities and Local Government) found himself in a slightly difficult situation given the announcements expected in the budget, some other major speeches to be made by ministers and the desire of the new government to have quick delivery of manifesto commitments. His ability to provide details to questions was thus limited. He did say that in his view government was doing a lot to support high streets/town centres and they did do this holistically. I must say, as an outsider to CLG, I do wonder about this. Too much of what I heard saw town centres as shopping; but maybe I missed the nuances?
The audience questioning of Steve Quartermain was direct, but for the reasons above, answers were necessarily less illuminating. The desire for dialogue was strong though and he invited email follow-ups. I did like one observation from the floor that most retail planning practice (impact, vital and viable, assessments etc.) was wholly irrelevant to the real situation now. That should provoke some reflection – and possibly angst.
And talking of alternative realities, the final speaker was Paul Sargent (CEO, Queensbury Real Estate) who presented the story of Friars Walk in Newport, which is due to open in November. Perceptions of the centre of Newport are not the best, but this development will change that. Three things emerged from his example for me:
(a) His comment that ‘leasing in now an economic charm strategy’ shows how the market has changed;
(b) The focus on restaurants/F&B (there are 11 in this scheme) and the way retailers want to know which have signed up before they will, marks another shift in the market.
(c) Paul also noted that these projects now have to be seen as infrastructure projects and councils have to recognise that (as Newport has with its financing).
No-one is suggesting this is easy – and Newport took 30 years as an audience member pointed out – but it is those places, towns, local authorities that can recognise the changed realities and the need for new realistic thinking about their assets and situation that stand a chance of meeting local requirements. Wishful thinking for the past or overly ambitious or unrealistic goals will not work anymore.
And with that we all went out to melt on Oxford Street.