Over the last decade or so Bill Grimsey has carved out a niche in directing a review team to look at high streets, town centres and retailing and to present ideas for what we should do about improving them. Summarising this body of work in a few words is not fair, but the emphasis has been on better place management, less reliance on chain businesses, more advanced use of technology and a fairer taxation system, especially replacing rates. The original reviews (the first one a counterpoint to Mary Portas, and the second a few years later) and a more recent bounce back from Covid report (albeit as it now appears, early in the pandemic) are available online, and are worth reading – if nothing else as a antidote to the vacuous UK Government ‘strategy’ recently produced. At least Grimsey knows his subject and takes it seriously, as opposed to a government led by a man who notoriously said “f**k business” and seems to be intent on doing just that.
So, the news a while back that Grimsey and his team were looking at the pandemic impacts on the independent retail sector was of interest. The report was produced a few weeks ago. It is quite long, although with lots of glossy photographs, and strikes me as something of two competing parts.
When, ahead of publication, I saw the press release for the report, I will admit my heart sank. It focused on a story of a debt mountain for independent businesses and a forecast of a ‘tsunami of closures’ (echoing a BRC statement of the previous month). As soon as I read this, I could predict the headlines and press take-up, as that soundbite fits right into the currently preferred narrative about towns and high streets. It reinforced beliefs; and so to many said nothing new. Sure enough that is what happened – another pile on of gloom and despair (Guardian and BBC as just two examples).
However, the report is entitled ’Against All Odds’ with a subtitle focused on adaptation and survival, and it is that narrative that more than half the report focuses on. Case studies of success stories abound, with fabulous examples of local and community support, business adaptation and true innovation in the teeth of the global pandemic. Yes, independents have had it tough; there has been genuine unfairness around (supermarkets and others selling non-essential goods is but one), the playing field is not level, but was despair the right part of the story to lead with and to focus the press release on?
As the report notes, local independent retailers and services have kept society and communities together. They’ve shown phenomenal levels of innovation, refocusing businesses, collaborating, adding social media and digital services and online sales where possible, and repositioning products and services to meet altered consumer demand. They also provide a (human) sense of community and distinctiveness that consumers are valuing as we emerge from the pandemic. An infrastructure, digital and physical, to support them is emerging. This is not to deny Grimsey’s essential point; this progress has been hard won and comes at a hefty (debt) price, and thus, an unfairness is perpetuated. But this story has two parts and only one was the focus of the media.
The question we should be focusing on is how do we do build more of this independent success? What further support can be provided? Here the Grimsey solution of loans into grants (and his comparison with government action along these lines in France is telling about giovernment seriousness and priorities), a fairer system overall, a stronger voice locally and nationally for small operators, a sales tax instead of rates and so on make sense. We should be concerned about the pressures independent businesses have been (differentially) put under and we should seek to reduce these burdens. But focusing on a ‘tsunami of closures’ as the starting point seems to me to allow those in power to shrug about inevitability. So, Bill’s tweet asking why the UK Government has collectively ignored the report (and the underlying issues), was possibly a predictable outcome. We need a more direct challenge to what we should value, what is important and why and what we have to support and should not be supporting (as Grimsey did on pandemic rates relief return for large essential retailers).
So please read the Grimsey ‘Open All Hours’ report but do so with a view of looking at celebrating and amplifying the brilliant, positive stories and then working as hard as you (we) can to make sure far more innovation and success of this form becomes the norm locally and internationally. In that way maybe we can rebalance the narrative and better reflect the reality, whilst working to remove the inequity. The battle for the type of places and retailing we want has only just started, but I don’t think it can be won by a doom and closure narrative.