As an academic, I probably have an irrational interest in data. To a great extent it is academic life-blood and I seem to have spent a lot of my adult life either obsessing or arguing over it. It therefore really upsets me when so much of the ‘debate’ about retailing, towns and high streets makes sweeping assumptions about, and from, inadequate, or rather vaguely defined, data. (This is not a new theme for me – see a previous post on here)
To give another recent example from the Herald: in late July they ran a piece entitled ‘Demand to save our high streets as Scotland loses 16,000 retail jobs in seven years’. This was based around a ‘discovery’ by the Scottish Retail Consortium. I tried to ‘discover’ the research and data on which this is based. I pretty much failed as beyond a press release I could not find the definitions or analysis on which the Herald report is based.
So, what can we learn from the Herald piece?
- The data is Local Authority data: despite the headline it is not town data nor high street data;
- It covers 2008-2015, which is a really odd period to be covering, matching the deepest recession we’ve seen, so what should we expect (and given the changing nature of consumer behaviour and of retailing);
- It refers to jobs, with no focus on the type of employment e.g. part-time (which is not unknown in retailing) and there is no consideration that some retail jobs are being switched into distribution and recorded there e.g. Amazon. The jobs data are also rounded to the nearest hundred it would seem.
Now, the SRC can not be held responsible for the headline (though on the SRC web there is an alignment of large retailers with high streets in another piece). This has though all the hallmarks of a campaign story, especially given the SRC focus on business rates – as they are quoted in the article “more action, including scrapping plans to charge extra business rates on out-of-town shopping centres“.
Hang on: how does reduced costs for out-of-town retailers help the high street, the headline of the article?
Now this is not to single out the SRC and the Herald in particular; this is just the latest example (and the one I had to hand) of a carelessness in the use of data and terminology. The “high street” is not the same as “retail”. “Local authorities” are not the same as “towns”. “Retail” is no longer the same as “shops”. “Retailers” are not only “Multiple or chain retailers”. We do everyone a dis-service by not being more careful. Retail is going through tough and changing times and we need to be clear what we require and what we value. But, blanket generalisations on data that is not covering what it seems is not the way to go.
Another example would be the BBC coverage of the latest Next results where it is described as the “high street chain” (tell that to the people of Dumfries) thus ignoring the locations of many of the Next stores and their strong online business. Indeed the discrepancy between store and online performance was the real story in the results.
These definitions and data matter for many reasons, but not least because if we are going to understand the issues – and then the solutions – we need to be honest about the data and what it relates to, and what it does not.
Data about and for towns was one of the key points in the Fraser Review of Town Centres and it recurs in the recently published Grimsey Review 2. Much of the Grimsey Review 2 covers well-trodden ground, but in its call for a focus on towns and place it remains consistent and correct.
But, how can we expect leadership on towns when we don’t collect basic data on towns in anything like a rigorous, consistent and coherent way? The Grimsey Review call for proper town data (and this means moving away from meaningless local authority levels for this purpose) is not a simple task.
Just how complicated and time-consuming it can be to build the basic blocks for this is shown in our recently published article in Scottish Affairs on “Putting Towns on the Policy Map: Understanding Scottish Places (USP)”. The Grimsey Review 2 is very positive about Scotland’s approach and the role of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Understanding Scottish Places. What it possibly misses is the effort it takes and the difficulties in sticking to data standards.
Our article outlines the process of development and the principles of Understanding Scottish Places including those of data requirements. For me, this is fundamental: we can’t sensibly talk about towns unless we collect data on towns on a comparable and consistent basis. Then we can have more realistic conversations about what is happening, what specific places are like and can achieve, and how our country of towns is made up.
The sad fact is that too little of our data is structured in this way, but we are getting there and USP offers a platform and approach to help start such conversations. It does not solve the problems of data and coverage but is an attempt to be consistent and comparable. What we do not need a casual equivalence of high streets with retail and towns with local authorities, which masks the issues we should be addressing. If we want towns to flourish then a start might be to collect and analyse data on towns, with agreed definitions and boundaries. Anything else is open to fudge and mis-appropriation.
Findlay A., Jackson M., McInroy N., Prentice P., Robertson E. and L. Sparks (2018) Putting Towns on the Policy Map: Understanding Scottish Places (USP). Scottish Affairs, 27, 3, 294-318. DOI: 10.3366/scot.2018.0245. www.euppublishing.com/toc/scot/27/3
Let me know if you have difficulty getting hold of a copy of the paper or if you want to discuss any aspect of it.