The invitation from the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) and the Scottish Civic Trust was to present a keynote address to their conference on ‘Destination High Street’. As both Professor of Retail Studies and Chair, Scotland’s Towns Partnership I was asked to speak on ‘Thinking the Unthinkable ……’.
Well, the day has come; on Wednesday (7th November) I will attempt to do justice to the topic. The programme for the day can be found here and the slides that I hope to be able to use can be downloaded here, as is my customary practice. But, rather than simply providing the slides on this blog, I thought that this time I would add a few words about the themes of my presentation. These are reflections in many ways of some conversations over recent years and the mis-understandings I perceive.
What follows below is thus not a write-through of the presentation, but instead selected topics I intend to cover.
Boiling the Frog: the metaphor of boiling the frog (gradual changes kill you as you don’t notice them) seems rather apt for town centres/high streets. We have spent the best part of 60+ years decentralising and destroying towns and we are now at the point where the cumulative effect can appear to be terminal. Reversing this will not be an overnight operation.
The Wrong Question: if your question is about saving the high street, then you’re asking the wrong question. High Streets are reflections of towns and it is towns that are in crisis, not just high street retail. We need to save our towns and the high streets will survive as a consequence.
A Retail Revolution: retailing is suffering across the country (in-town and out-of-town) as the over-expansion of the last 40 years collides with the technology and consumer changes. Throw in biased and unfair cost structures and taxation regimes and we should not be surprised at where we are and what is happening. This revolution has a long way to go, whatever sticking plasters are applied to high streets via however many budgets.
The Wrong Narrative: But not all places or retailers are dying. Some are positively thriving as they adjust to the new realities. Too often the media sing the siren song of death, but the reality is nowhere as negative. Physical retail has its place for consumers and some physical retailers are doing well. There are success stories and we need to shout about and learn from them.
Towns and Places Matter: Towns are a defining feature of Scotland and our communities. We have to make them positive choices and embrace this adaptation and community, thinking beyond retail to living, working and playing in our towns and places. Community focus, especially in smaller towns will be a vital emphasis.
‘Thinking the Unthinkable….’ has a number of possible connotations and implications. It is unthinkable we have let things get to this position. It is unthinkable our current tax approach dates in the main from the late 1500s. Our nostalgia or inertia holds us back in many ways. But what changes could we make that are currently unthinkable? Some thoughts to frame a discussion:
- Retailing is a consequence not a pre-requisite for a town – treat it as such
- Products go to people not the other way round – what are the implications of this?
- Environment in the broadest sense (including heritage) is fundamental to place identity
- Rates need to be phased down and digital taxes phased up (and a balance of taxes is needed within and across retailing and between retailing and other sectors)
- VAT needs reformation for town centres and redevelopments
- Local independent businesses should get preferential treatment
- Places have to build belonging and stories and become places of interaction first not transaction
- Technology has to be embraced and not seen as the opposition.
It is not really that unthinkable; the unthinkable is that we would sit idly by and let our towns and communities suffer.