As noted in my previous post, on the 24th March the Scottish Government published its Retail Strategy for Scotland and the Minister Tom Arthur MSP launched it in Parliament that afternoon. The Strategy can be downloaded here and the Ministerial Statement here.
Following the statement, MSPs had the opportunity to question the Minister. There was time for 13 questions on a range of retail issues and from across the country. Whilst not exhaustive, I have grouped the questions into topic areas:
- Productivity of retailing
- Business rates and costs for business (and consumers)
- The importance of small retailers and the wellbeing economy
- Business Improvement Districts (BIDS)
- Membership of the Retail Industry Leadership Group and its likely approach
The sense I took from the questions was of a broad welcome for the strategy and its focus on the retail sector (and those it employs and serves), but a keen-ness to see action and implementation on big issues. (Not dissimilar to my session for the Economy and Fair Work Committee).
I thought I might reflect for a moment on these five areas:
- Productivity: the question of retail productivity is a complex one. Most measures used are labour productivity based and retail does badly on this, with a “long tail” of “inefficiency”. For me this is a problematic conception. Its logical conclusion is that retail should solely be based on a greenfield site, big box, highly automated shed. This is not retailing as most of us want it, most of the time. If we are serious about Wellbeing Economy and Community Wealth Building, then how should we assess and value retailing activities including its productivity? We have to get beyond simplistic purely business focused measures.
- Business rates and costs: my views on business rates/non domestic rates are well known (see Town and Country Planning Association article here and other commentary here, as well as in A New Future for Sctotland’s Town Centres). I believe firmly we need reform/abolition and we need to address a fundamental issue – how do the levers in our taxation and fiscal system support and enable us to meet our National Outcomes and our ambitions in the National Performance Framework? Currently they work against our policies and are doing harm to our town centres (and other national policy ambitions).
- Small retailers: the strategy is meant to be read in alignment with other major recent policy announcements. This would indicate a support for a more varied, diverse and non-chain focused retail sector. The question is whether our actions are fully behind this ambition and if not how do we move support to be more targeted to support small retailers.
- BIDS: a question was raised over why some BIDS work and some don’t. But BIDS are a democratic process, and it is like asking why one political party succeeds in one place but fails in another. BIDS can – and do – work well when attuned at the right scale to both needs and wants. But the context may not always be there. This is a strength of the approach in my opinion. There is perhaps need to recognise that more support for BIDS professional management on the ground is needed.
- Retail Industry Leadership Group: we understand the Minister will co-chair this with a leading retailer. Beyond that the membership and its approach remain to be developed. But the timescale is ambitious and the initial tasks – a Just Transition Plan and a Skills Audit and Action Plan – have been set down. The implementation and action are of course the keys to the success of the strategy. That MSPs were so interested in the Group, its membership, remit, mode of operation etc is testimony to the interest in, and recognition of, the place of retail.
Those were my reflections on the Ministerial Statement, but if you want to make your own mind up, then the session is available here.