Over the last few years, vacancies and store closures have not been out of the news. Whilst vacancy levels may have dropped off from their peak a few years ago, there is a continuation of stories about the closure rates of stores across the UK.
This week is no different as the annual Price Waterhouse report on store closures, based on Local Data Company data, was published. It painted a picture of a large number of closures – indeed the largest annual total in the series.
The detail is not what particularly interests me here (some of my reasons for this can be found in my blog and the coverage when the data were released this time last year). Instead it is some of the interpretation around it that puzzles me. The BBC Scotland news was not untypical; the story focused on what could be done to reverse the decline. I emphasise reverse as this is the tenor of so much of the coverage, and of individual views. There is of course an irony in this coverage, as PwC report that
“11 of the 12 parts of Great Britain the research covers had the worst year in terms of net store declines since 2013. (store openings – store closures = net figure). The only place where net declines were not the worst in five years was Scotland. Here the closure rate at the lowest it’s been over that period, the 5th consecutive year store closures have fallen.”
So Scotland is an outlier in terms of a better performance, something recognized by the BBC online
There are so many problems in seeing the issue as simply as reversing something. Now I know pining for the second world war is a current national (English?) phenomenon and nostalgia (mainly for things mis-remembered or in case of many MPs never experienced) is a current single solution to everything. But, really, we need to have a good look at ourselves and the issue and realise we have it the wrong way round.
- We can not reverse the decline except in very particular circumstances. But more fundamentally we should not be trying to – that was the Portas approach. Instead we have to realise the world has changed and imagine what retail (and town centres – NOT high streets) are going to be like.
- There are a number of fundamental reasons for saying this. First, we have spent 50+ years building retail all over the place. This has not been accompanied by space reduction. Closures are a function of over-capacity derived in part from our own actions. Secondly we have privileged these new spaces (out-of-town and internet) in financial terms and until we do something about it we will not see any real change in trends. Thirdly we have forgotten what towns are for. Towns are not solely retail (or commercial) spaces but spaces for all forms of exchange and life. Our economic system has altered our conception of spaces for the worst.
- In our rush to development and with our mis-aligned financial system we have also forgotten about the consumer and what they want. This has, is and will change and our spaces need to keep up with this. Those with nostalgic leanings are often those first to the very formats that destroyed the previous stores. We have also forgotten that individual actions end up being collective ones.
This all sounds rather gloomy and as though nothing can be done. That is not my point as anyone aware of our work in Scotland can see (and no, I am not taking credit for the better performance in Scotland, especially given the data in the report is on only eight Scottish places). I will though reiterate that this is a place/town problem and not a retail one. We need to focus on assets, homes, digital, workspaces, greenspaces and so on in towns; the retail will follow the people. We need to tackle the taxation and other legislation issues that tie the hands of town centres. And finally, we have to imagine the town space and the ‘high street’ ten or twenty years hence and not constantly try to ‘reverse’ or return the situation to what went before.
The store closures we see today (and lets not forget the human cost under that statement) are an inevitable consequence of our store building, decentralisation and tax polices of the past. The point should not to agonise over the closures, but do something about changing the playing field and improving the future. I would like to think we are starting that in Scotland.