In 2012 Anne Findlay and I attempted to take over from Professor Cliff Guy who had provided the Trading Places columns in Town and Country Planning for 12 years. In the subsequent 6 years we have produced 23 columns, but now feel it is time to hand over to others. In discussing our leaving we prepared a reflective piece on the themes and issues we have discussed over the period.
Reduced consumer demand, concerns about the economy and the spectre of store closures and job losses have been the constant background to our commentaries. Together with the rapid, strong, growth of discount retailing in food and non-food and the continuing long-term rise of the internet as a channel of information and distribution, retailing has been faced with a formidable array of challenges. Seeing Asda and Sainsbury proposing a merger, with Amazon rumoured as a possible disruptor, is something unimaginable a few years ago. In the main the plight of the retail sector has not been an issue for governments since 2012 (or indeed before, really). Indeed, in most instances it can be safely argued that they have not cared that much about the sector. The constantly increasing penalisation of rates and the ever increasing burden of administration and costs have combined to cumulatively hammer away at retail business confidence, resilience and survival. Add in a rather less than laissez-faire attitude towards an equal taxation field and an absolute blindness towards the taxation and other competitive implications of internet trading, and you can be forgiven for believing this government (and its predecessors) hates shops and shopkeepers, however many ministers it has brought to the party (and then dropped).
Store closures and job losses have been a recurrent backcloth. Announcements recently include Maplin, Toys R Us, Jacques Vert, and House of Fraser. Add in the Tesco/Booker merger, possibly Asda/Sainsbury and Coop/Nisa (and the Costcutter supply deal) and this restructuring of (especially) the food sector, reflects the rise of the internet and the over-supply of retail space over decades, as well as alterations in consumer behaviour more widely. Yet, in many places stores are also opening and trade is positive. We sometimes see change confused with calamity (which for those personally involved it is of course).
Our columns have focused on a range of issues around this broad theme of change and on the implications of these for planning. We have identified four themes across these columns.
Change and Competition
There are many possible angles to the investigation of change and competition. We have covered the changing grocery shopper and the ways in which behaviours are altering to focus more on convenience and also on the internet. The impact of this has been covered through the decline and closure of stores and the impact this has on towns. Closures however also add trade and opportunities for other businesses in some cases. At the other extreme, we have also focused on more temporary and transient retailing which seeks to engage the consumer in more interesting ways. Our examples have been drawn from farm shops and from pop-up shops, both of which bring a point of differentiation to the consumer and to the town.
Over the last four decades there has been a rapid growth of retail space, much of it in new sites and developments. The restructuring of the retail sector has had many dimensions and the focus has often been, as noted above, on closures. However there are also a range of other adjustments that are components of this restructuring. In this regard we have looked at the change and resilience of local parades of shops at one level and at the dynamic change in some retail parks on the other.
Town Centres and Towns
One of the main casualties of this restructuring and the alteration of patterns of shopping and consuming has been the traditional high street. Our focus here has been mainly on the various reviews that were carried out at the time of the start of our tenure of this column and the remedies and solutions proposed in each. In England Mary Portas was asked to look at the high street. A rival, independent review, also focused mainly on England – the Grimsey Report (and its new update). In Scotland the Fraser Review covered the requirement for a National Review of Town Centres, and a live policy debate and actions have ensued. As we have argued, this distinction between high street and town centre is an important one. If you conceive the issue as being a retail one, then retail solutions get proposed and are often doomed to fail. If the problem is framed as a place based one or a town centre one, then the breadth of the problems, but also the potential solutions, are greater. Towns are so much more than retailing. This theme and the issues it raises of the ‘failure’ of local authorities and town managers and the need for new solutions (a very Grimsey theme) often private or community led, such as town teams, BIDs or in part development trusts, is one that continues to be a focus of attention. There is no one perfect solution, and certainly not one based on retail alone, but the broader issues are now at least better understood and considered, especially we would argue in Scotland.
One of the key elements of this consideration of town centres has been the almost unanimous criticism of the rates system, whether we see it as medieval or as an analogue solution in a digital world. In town centres this is felt with a rare passion, which we covered, in that they feel adversely singled out when compared with out-of-town or online businesses. This running sore is not ameliorated by rebate and other schemes. The system is out of date and not fit for purpose.
Our final theme is perhaps a more controversial one. Retailers and aspects of the retail sector are now being questioned on, or co-opted for, social engagement or social impact. There has been an emerging recognition that the practices of retailers are not somehow miraculously socially neutral. There are again many dimensions of this but we have touched on the role of bookmakers and on retailers and obesity. In terms of bookmakers there is a distinct whiff of moralising, but their agglomeration is hard to wave off. But why should the planning system be forced to mop up a social issue? And one that has in many ways been brought on by the government’s prior decisions. In considering obesity we looked at a similar issue; should planning be co-opted to try to alter the diet and health of communities?
What though does this period say about the future for retailing? It is easy to get despondent with all the gloom and the closures. Yet, there are great retailers expanding and growing. Stores continue to open; consumers continue to seek solutions to their needs. Independent retailers across the country are developing their, and place-based, distinctiveness. There is much to look forward to, especially if the worst excesses of recent decades can be removed. It is a restructuring rather than a replacement of retail.
A fuller version of this column can be found here.