I recently had an exchange with Iain Nicholson around media coverage of the high street. it followed my recent diatribe about data. I have known Iain for a few years and admired the work he has been doing in towns around Oxfordshire. I asked him if he’d like to put a viewpoint forward for this blog and he agreed readily. What follows is his take (and some photos) on town things.
“Carnage, ravaging, crisis, dying! Words that are becoming all too common in the gloomster national media reporting of the High Street and our town centres. Our experience of working across towns tells us it is tough and there are challenges to face. But carnage? Really?
Trouble is, the hysteria is hiding the good and, maybe more importantly, drowning out sensible conversation about what can and needs to be done, and the practical help we need from government and our local councils.
- The business rates system, as is widely agreed, is wholly unfit for purpose and we can point to cases where it’s a barrier to empty units being let – especially some of the available reliefs.
- Use Classes Guidance is equally unfit for purpose. The A1 category is not just for shops so non-shop uses can take on a ‘shop’ unit without needing to apply, with the predictable: “Oh not another…!” refrain as a result. In fact, it seems even a change to A2 uses, which would’ve been challenged as a loss of A1 before, are going through on the nod, so we see office uses taking on what were shop units, again reducing the retail core which can do so much for the attractiveness and variety of a town centre’s offer. If there were no demand from would-be shop tenants you could make the case, but our experience is that this isn’t so, and retail uses are being blocked out.
- Parking Policy – if it was health it would be called a postcode lottery. In (too) many places it’s a cash cow being run by councils with no account being taken of the impact on town centres.
- ‘Town Centre First’ Policy – it’s hard to find anyone who believes we have one! In our experience its current outputs are very lengthy council officer reports, developers commissioning consultants to write submissions that ‘answer’ the TCF criteria…and out of town retail centres approved (either first up or on appeal) that then inevitably damage the nearby town centre.
With concerted practical help on these policy shortcomings, the great work being done by town teams, town partnerships and BIDs in our town centres has a better chance to flourish.
Admittedly our own work has us in a small and local sample of town centres, but we won’t be the only ones to report shops opening and/or expanding. And it’s not just the “Oh not another…!” kinds, it’s antique shops, jewellers, toy shops, sports shops, interiors and upcycling stores and more.
And it isn’t just our towns that have seen pictures of queues outside #indie record stores and comic shops and bookshops and butchers.
We’ve run successful pop-up-shop projects to create a pipeline ready to take on a town’s empties, giving businesses a town centre start to help overcome a significant barrier to start-ups – the typical landlord/agent requirement for 3, 5 or 10-year leases before they have the confidence and track record to warrant that. We take on windows of empty units to create attractive displays to improve their look while work to get them let continues. We’re encouraging businesses to share units, adding an extra offer to attract customers, dividing the rent burden and reducing the time each needs to staff the shop (especially valuable where those involved are designer/makers). We’re promoting what we call #morethanretail, where shop owners with a skill use it to run classes and workshops, as an extra income stream but also to generate a new customer base. We’re facilitating the take up of space by businesses outside the traditional ‘shop’ type (tho some have a retail/sales element) but which, in their own way, attract footfall that in turn supports other elements of the town centre mix. Examples include gyms, reptile rescue centres, galleries run by collaborations of artists, community spaces, kids play cafés, board game hubs & more. And we’re encouraging landlords to split larger empty units because the bulk of the demand we see is from smaller, #indie, businesses, so that splitting helps accommodate to them.
These approaches are all elements of a focus for our town team work on empty units. In each town centre we’ve worked we started with a rigorous audit of its empty shops to see what the barriers are to their being let, then worked with landlords and agents to overcome them. We were told recently by a senior place management leader that we were “sadly rare” in taking this approach. Maybe it’s time it became all too common!”