Ten years on stirlingretail.com

Ten years ago today (6th April 2011) I put up my very first post on this blog.  My intention was really two fold.  First I wanted to have a place to collect and publicise retail things so as to avoid having to repeat myself about basic and core things to journalists and others.  Secondly, knowing that I was about to enter a prolonged period of university administration.  I wanted a forum to comment on retail matters and have a ‘voice’ as academic articles were likely to be out of the question.

Others can judge whether the blog is worth it to them, but for me it has been that different outlet and has been very enjoyable to do.  It hasn’t stopped the obvious phone calls but I have been able to link it to my academic and policy work, which seems to have staggered on despite other distractions.  The style/theme may have dated and some sections are now underpopulated but it is attracting record numbers of visitors.

Birthdays are about looking back and looking forward. So I thought I would look back at April 2011.

April 2011 saw four posts published and it is interesting to look at the topics

So, if you look at themes on the blog recently, then not much has changed in a decade.  I am still working on convenience retailing (which has grown strongly over the period and during the pandemic – and who thought about the latter in 2011?) and on town centres. Retail shopfronts and history remain fascinating.  Retail sales likewise are still facing the same question, but in the last twelve months with a lockdown pandemic dynamic and urgency.

The top three read posts for all of 2011 reflect emerging issues of the time.  The top post was on the opening of Waitrose in Stirling – on the site of the Stirling Miner’s Welfare, so as I remarked at the time a sort of symbolic shifting of our times.  The second most read post was on the state of British retailing from the topics covered at the Annual BRC Conference – the lead issues were multichannel, the ongoing Portas review and retail regulation.  And the third top post was my realisation that despite stagnating market share (and not many were saying that), Tesco were still #1 in the UK and had been for the entire life of our first year undergraduates – they had never known any difference. Ten years on they still hold that spot of course, making them British largest food retailer for almost 30 years and something that still concerns some.

The symmetry of topics between then and now is either disturbing (has so little changed in our concerns about retail) or reflective of the reality (retail continues to confront and adapt to systemic change). It could be both of course, but I will leave you to judge. Will the same topics be in the front of our minds in 2031?

Anyhow, 10 years more – or not? I am not sure I thought it would last for that long, so who knows how much longer it is worthwhile and interesting (to do and to read).

Posted in Academics, Consumer Change, Convenience, Convenience stores, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Market Shares, Mary Portas, Multichannel, Online Retailing, Red Tape, Regulation, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Shopfronts, Stirling, Tesco, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Waitrose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An (Un)Happy Anniversary

On the 16th March 2020 I started working from home.  There had been an odd set of circumstances in the run-up to this date.

We’d come back from South Africa in late January and I’d felt a little unwell; something flu-like and then I lost my voice and could only squeak like a chipmunk.  I had to stay in bed and missed the Scotland/England rugby match (shows how unwell I must have been).  On our trip a week or so after to see France play Wales in Cardiff, our brand new hire car broke down and I spent three hours in a pub car park waiting for it to be fixed.  My wife spent those hours in the pub itself having sympathetic drinks bought for her (hopefully for the car breaking down and not for being married to me, but she never really said).

Then Flybe collapsed so we had to drive to Wales for the Scotland rugby game (and to see my house bound sister).  Once in Wales the game was called off due to Covid.  So we drove home and lockdown started a week later. Anticipating things, I retreated to working from home on the 16th and I have not been in work physically or seen my sister since. Nor have I seen a live rugby match.

One year, one whole year.

Now as I have noted here before, I/we are the lucky ones. We are in a privileged position.  Others have been far less able to cope and have been far more affected by tragedy.  I can do my job from home and we have been able and can afford to use home delivery for things we might need.  We haven’t used cash in a year, my car has done only a few hundred miles in a year and we have basically asked the retail sector to come to us.  In the main it has worked.

Destroying my knee a few years ago meant we were set up for, and using, home grocery delivery for main items and it has functioned pretty seamlessly, especially as delivery slots expanded.  We added to that with visits to the local butchers (my one main regular trip out) and online purchases of fish (we have varied it and most has been great), flour as we already did home bread making (the excellent Blair Atholl Watermill), cheese (Errington, Lincolnshire Poacher), charcuterie (East Coast Cured) and wine (Woodwinters).  That covered the essentials. We tried to be local and small/independent where we could but also used a couple of wholesalers who switched to home delivery.  An indulgence has been croissants and speciality bread from Wild Hearth Bakery.  Trips to Stirling Farmers Market added some variety when possible.  Books we’ve bought from local bookshops as an alternative to Amazon and Christmas provided a chance to really seek out quirky, independent businesses for presents. Again, with two (corporate interestingly) exceptions it all worked pretty well at Christmas.

As I said, we are fortunate.  What it has shown is the wide range of local and alternative businesses out there with great products.  As we come out of lockdown again I hope to use that freedom to reward those businesses that kept us going during this year and not fall back to previous habits. This will be both in physical and virtual shopping.

For a while I resented the delivery charges I was paying and the cardboard generated for recycling.  I am not sure I can do much about the latter, but I reconciled myself to the former as a trade-off with the lack of petrol I was buying for my stationary car.  Seen in that way it is not such a bad deal.  The question of the wider impacts of all this is for another time.

But one thing is clear. Being a Professor of Retail Studies and basically only doing online retailing/shopping is no way to go on. I need to get out to more shops, and that day can’t come fast enough. I am not sure I need to buy anything, but I really want to be in those spaces.

However, in the meantime a thank you to all those smaller and local businesses that have kept us going. We really appreciate it.

Posted in Amazon, Books, Cardiff, Christmas, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Covid19, Farmers Markets, Food, Food and Beverage, Food Retailing, Home Delivery, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Producers, Products, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Retailing, Small Shops, Stirling, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Dolce Vita – or perhaps not

I am on annual leave today and tomorrow. These dates have been in the diary for some time; over a year to be precise.  Whilst being on leave will be a relief (for me and no doubt some colleagues) it is rather bittersweet.

I should have been in Rome, watching Wales play rugby.

Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000. Wales first played them in Italy in 2001.  Living in the USA at the time, the journey was a little far.  But every other year since we have been present, if not always correct.  In rain or shine, good times and bad, the Rome long weekend has been a favourite and a highlight.  Even if, whisper it please, Wales actually managed to lose, twice.  Initially we just turned up and paid at the gate at Stadio Flaminio as part of a small crowd.  Now it is a tens of thousand strong pilgrimage and to the Stadio Olimpico.

2003 Stadio Flaminio – teetering between ranshackle and condemned

But this year, which would have been our 10th such trip, Covid has intervened and my living room sofa will have to do.  And that in this year of all years for Welsh rugby (hopefully).

On the positive side it is saving me money.  But that individual view illustrates the problem so many businesses have at this time.  We won’t be paying for flights, accommodation, transport, food and possibly drink. Restaurants, bars and others will have to do without our purchases.  And we won’t be doing retail research, especially into retail formats (Eataly for example) and markets (Campagna Amica). The scale of the economic loss is formidable given the volume of people, and the scale of spending.  This is income entirely foregone; the fixture, and our trip, is cancelled, not postponed.

And it is not just Rome.  We would have gone to Murrayfield twice (and the Welsh invasion every two years is large for many towns across Scotland as well as the city) and down to Cardiff twice.   Rugby is my rather expensive passion, but not spending does not seem right.  We may not miss the economic hit, but we do miss the social hit.

I write this not to garner sympathy for what I am missing, but to point to the significance of events of all shapes and sizes for their own local economies, local businesses and for all those that support them. The cumulative loss is huge to many places and businesses.

In some fields the pandemic has possibly postponed spending and it will be released in due course.  In others there may be a post lockdown and (hopefully) post pandemic recovery as people want to spend and socialise and eat out and do the things we missed.  The scale and length of this is a great imponderable at the moment. Great, but for businesses trying to survive through this desert of income, even with Government support, it must be so hard, and probably soul destroying.

There are also many people who have not been in the fortunate position we are in, and have found it hard to keep going during the pandemic. Their post pandemic spending will not be any release of (non-existent) savings, but a continuing struggle to make ends meet. It is one of the reasons we have to address the systemic inequalities in society.

So, as I watch Wales and Italy on Saturday I will be promising myself in the future to make amends for what I’ve missed over the last year.   Eat, drink and be merry, with friends, in as many new and old places seems like a nice idea and if I can support local businesses at the same time then all the better.  And if as many people as possible are of the same mind then maybe things will be better in the coming year for many businesses.

A Welsh win on Saturday will help kick start the process.

2019: Near to Stadio Olimpico. The guy on the right was a pretty handy player in his day

Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Food and Beverage, Italy, Markets, Pandemic, Retail Economy, Retailers, Rugby Union, Social Renewal, Sport, Uncategorized, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Money, Money, Money: Paying by Cash, Contactless Card or Digital?

Source: Bank of England (2020) Cash in the time of Covid

In the UK Government Budget of the 3rd March it was announced that the upper limit for contactless card payments was to be lifted from £45 to £100. This reflects the rapid rise of contactless card payment (which began before the pandemic, but has accelerated during it), the growth of online transactions and payments and the decline in the use of cash. The following day Amazon announced the opening of their first till-less electronic payment only store in London.

There are a number of apsects to these announcements and the underlying trends they reflect, some positive and some negative and there are concerns about people for whom cash is critically important for a variety of reasons.

I invited an ex-colleague of mine who has looked at this and other financial services issues for most of his career, Professor Steve Worthington of Swinburne University Business School, Melbourne, Australia to provide some thoughts on the issues raised. He writes:

“The pandemic has turbo charged the transition from paying by cash, to paying by digital transactions. The increased reluctance to either pay with or accept cash, may be partly attributed to fears (often unfounded), about how bank notes and coins may carry the infection and hence it may be transferred by the handling of cash.

The increase in on-line purchases has also played a major role in the diminishing use of cash, as consumers unable or unwilling to shop in person, purchase on-line. For those face-to-face transactions that still occur, the rise of the contactless payment card has made their usage more acceptable, as there is less likelihood of a transmission of the virus, because the card is not exchanged between people and social distancing can be maintained.

The limit on contactless card transactions is currently £45, but the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced in January 2021, that it was seeking to raise that limit to £100, as the number of retailers accepting cash, continues to fall, and this was announced in the recent budget. Such a move would put further pressure on the cash infrastructure that underpins the availability and use of cash as payment instrument.

Link, the UK’s largest cash machine network, said in January 2021 that there had been a 38 per cent decline in ATM transactions in 2020 and that the number of ATMs had declined by 10 per cent in the same period. At the same time many banks are closing some of their branches and/or reducing the hours that they are open for customers. Thus, the decline in the use of cash is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as cash becomes both more difficult to access and at the same time, there are less and less opportunities to use it.

The charity Age UK has written an open letter to the FCA, warning that the rush towards a more cashless society could leave to some older people being excluded from paying their way with cash. Age UK is also concerned that banks are ‘encouraging’ customers to use digital channels. This would further exclude senior citizens, as it is believed that one third of the 70 plus population in England (the equivalent of 2.3 million people), live in a household without access to the internet. Other members of society who are vulnerable to digital exclusion include the poor, those with disabilities and people who live in rural areas.

There are a variety of responses to this issue of financial exclusion, for those who prefer to use cash. In September 2020, the EU Council of Justice declared that cash is a public good and must be accepted by retailers. The Advocate General of the Council stressed the key role that cash plays in social inclusion and that it is also an important factor in personal freedom and privacy.

In the USA, a broad spectrum of consumer representatives and businesses announced in May 2020, the formation of the Consumer Choice in Payment Coalition (CCPC), seeking to preserve the right of American consumers to pay with cash. Their priority is supporting the passage of the Payment Choice Act of 2019 in the US Congress. If enacted the law would maintain national acceptance of cash payments for consumer purchase of goods and services, at bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. The CCPC claims that cash payments have widespread public support, citing recent moves by the state of New Jersey and cities including New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, to enact laws requiring retailers to maintain a cash payment option.

In the UK, the 2019 Access to Cash Review, found that 17 per cent of the population rely on cash, with vulnerable communities such as the poor and those in rural areas, at particular risk from reduced access to cash. The UK Government has committed to introducing new rules to ensure that cash remains available to those who prefer it to the digital alternatives. The Government is also proposing to provide the FCA with overall responsibility for maintain a ‘well-functioning’ retail cash system.

There are already initiatives being explored to address the demise of bank branches and ATMs in the UK. The Post Office is trialing ‘Banking Hubs’, which involve sharing retail space with high street banks who have closed their local branches. These hubs are part of a wider scheme setup under the Community Access to Cash Pilots (CACP), that includes six other projects with local communities trialing different measures. These include making it easier for shops and pubs to offer purchase free ‘cashback’ to consumers.

Furthermore, the FCA has warned banks that every time they plan to close a branch or an ATM, they will need to provide an analysis of the impact on customers access to cash. This will include the needs of the customers currently using this branch or ATM; the impact of the proposals on those customers and alternatives that are or could reasonably be put in place.

So the message to us all is, ‘Cash: Use it, or Lose it!’”

Posted in Amazon, Amazon Go, ATMs, Cash, Cashpoints, Consumer Change, Consumers, Contactless, Covid19, Credit and Debit Cards, European Union, Local Currency, Pandemic, Post Offices, Retailers, Self-Scanning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Place for Older Consumers

A few weeks ago I reflected on my academic article output for 2020 and the, to me at least, surprise that I had achieved seven outputs.  I put this down to my co-authors, but did point out that this feat was not going to be repeated.

Whilst I am certain it won’t be repeated, my co-authors have got 2021 off to a flying start as two articles have been accepted and put into early view in January and February.  Whilst the papers are not related, there is a common theme between them, namely the older or ageing consumer.

Now it is strictly accurate that there is an increasing degree of personal self-interest in the subject of the older consumer, but that is not the origin of either of these papers.  There isn’t really an order to them, but I do think the topics are extremely relevant.

Dr Maria Rybaczewska and myself have authored a paper on “Ageing consumers and e-ecommerce activities’ for Ageing & Society.  This takes data from the Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS) programme (for which thanks to Dr Elaine Douglas and Professor David Bell) to look at the online behaviour of older consumers.  We note that the ‘breakpoint’ for use appears to be 75 years old; somewhat higher than most academic papers and business practitioners tend to set it.  We also see some indication of single/widowed status or having lower usage, raising issues of isolation.  The pandemic won’t have helped this one suspects.

The second paper is co-authored with my Stirling colleague, also Deputy Principal, and Professor of Gerontology, Judith Phillips, together with Nigel Walford and Ann Hockey from Kingston and Anglia Ruskin Universities respectively.  It is entitled ‘Older people, town centres and the revival of the high street’ and is published in Planning, Theory and Practice.  The paper considers the potential multiple roles of older people in helping revive and rejuvenate town centres given the centrality of place for healthy supportive living, community and social participation and ‘ageing in place’. As this paper is OPEN ACCESS it can be downloaded at the publisher or below.

Whilst on different topics, the common thread is the perception and value of older consumers.  Many companies have been guilty of ignoring older consumers when it comes to the internet.  This is not to deny issues of access and use for many, but to point up the opportunity (and as we become more digital, the need).  This sense of opportunity and value also underpins the second paper and the benefits that can derive from seeing town centres as beyond retail, with a mixed use, inter-generational approach.  This is one aspect that underpinned some of the thinking in our recent Town Centre Action Plan Review recommendations. Rather than isolation (whether digital or physical), older people and older consumers can bring wider benefits for all society and places.

The abstracts of these papers and links to the Stirling depository providing pre-print access can be found here.  Depending on your access and subscriptions the final published papers can be obtained by following the links below.


Rybaczewska M. and L. Sparks (2021) Ageing consumers and e-commerce activities.  Ageing & Society, 1-20, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X20001932

Phillips  J., Walford N., Hockey A and L. Sparks  (2021) Older people, town centres and the revival of the ‘high street’. Planning, Theory and Practice, https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2021.1875030

Posted in Academics, Ageing, Community, HAGIS, Healthy Ageing, Healthy Living, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Online Retailing, Places, Planning, Regeneration, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Social Inequality, Town Centre Living, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vibrancy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retail Sales in Great Britain, January 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics produced the monthly retail sales figures for Great Britain for January 2021.  This is the first full month of data since lockdown was reintroduced before and around Christmas.

The press headlines in some cases were predictably apocalyptic, and highly unenlightening.  There is no doubt that parts of retailing are really struggling, but others are not, reflecting the current changed reality of consumer behaviour.  As I have written before, the headlines irritate me because they ignore the context to a major degree.  In a lockdown where some shops can not open, surely you expect retail sales to be down, and by quite a lot.  Indeed one could argue given the state of the economy and personal finances for many, they have been more resilient than anticipated (see first figure above).

None of that though can mask the pain and the problems for retailers (and especially their employees) forced to be closed and likely to be closed for some time yet.

We can see the impact of this in these ONS figures.  Non-food stores saw sales almost a quarter down between January and the previous month (December including Christmas).  The impact is felt across the non-food sectors but the data suggests it was not as extreme as in the first lockdown last April.  This is ascribed to stronger online and click and collect provision, as capacity has been built and learning implemented in the last 10 months.

Food retailing continued to do well, growing in comparison to December.  Some of this remains hospitality and eating out diversion. Supermarkets also gained clothing sales.

The switch to online is also notable in the figure above.  And, as the figure below shows, the proportion of retail sales online hit a record 35.2% in January 2021.  The figure clearly shows the switch at the start of the pandemic into online, and the way in which food retailing reacted (now at a record 12.2% in food as well).

The questions arising from these data are profound for retailing:

  • Does the online food penetration pattern imply a sustained switch of behaviours? Capacity has been built and users are used to systems, so is this level here to say or likely to grow? Or if it gets unused what will that say for the future of online food retailing?
  • Linked to this, does routine food sales via this channel imply that better local and convenience opportunities will also be sustained?  Or will these be hit more as hospitality etc. opens up?
  • The fluctuations of the non-food online penetration (linked to lockdowns) implies a more necessity driven behaviour, so does this suggest that as stores open up, so sales patterns will revert to physical stores, and online penetration here will fall?
  • And overall, is online at 35.2% where this will end up, or will as before in the pandemic the penetration drop back a bit?

This will obviously unfold as we come out of lockdown, and if we can sustain the opening up of shops, then I think we will see a renaissance of physical retailing. The questions above are a little skewed to the macro and the larger retailers perhaps, and there is an interesting undercurrent of independent and local shop openings and attraction that will need to be considered further. We have all missed being out and about and socialising, and I suspect many will want to make up for lost time in their local and perhaps other centres, and to see something different to their current online and restricted shop offers.

Posted in Christmas, Click and Collect, Clothing, Consumer Change, Convenience stores, Covid19, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Non-Essential Retailing, Non-food retailing, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Supermarket, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Screen Time? Cinemas and Town Centres

One of the things that people have missed though the pandemic is the ability to go to a cinema and see a film. This is a social as well as an artistic activity, whihc raises questions about the types and locations of cinemas. Given they are a customer draw and can be an asset and attractor for a place and for people, there is considerable interest in cinemas and town centres.

With the announcement last week of the The Arc’s plans for a cinema in Ayr, I thought it might be interesting to get some reflections on cinemas and town centres in Scotland. I therefore asked Rob Arthur, who is a Director at The Big Picture (Cinema Advisers) Ltd and has over 30 years of experience of working in cinema globally to provide some comments. His thoughts are below.

“Scotland has a vibrant, successful, and diverse cinema sector which has seen a steady period of growth from the very first multiplex location constructed at Clydebank in 1988 through to the latest opening of the Highland Cinema in Fort William in late 2020. The development of digital, 3D and alternative content (opera, ballet, sports, entertainment shows, gaming) has supported this growth.

Total Scottish box office in 2019 was £100m. 33 cinemas in Scotland are operated by the major chains – Cineworld, Odeon, Vue, Showcase, Empire and Everyman. The majors concentrate their efforts on the main cities and large population densities, but do not venture outwards to expand and extend cinema-going to smaller and less densely populated areas of the country. The other 74 venues are independent or arthouse from the Mareel in Shetland to the newly upgraded Picture House in Campbeltown. These venues play a critical part in the cultural and social networking across the country in any given year.

There is a strong commitment to the future of the industry from all key stakeholders – investors, landlords, developers, producers, operators, and key suppliers – to enable future openings that includes a new Vue Cinema at Glasgow’s St Enoch Centre and an Everyman boutique offer at the St James Quarter in Edinburgh. Plans are underway for new further developments in Aberdeen, Cumbernauld, Dumfries, Montrose, Paisley, and The Arc’s newly announced plans for Ayr.

Residents of towns and cities across Scotland (and across the world) generally put cinemas at the top or near the top of their wish list of leisure facilities that they would like to have located in their area. Reasons for this include:  

  • Cinemas act as a catalyst for the re-purposing and regeneration of a town centre and are generally welcomed by those who have stayed in an area for many years and those who are recent or new arrivals. 
  • The largest entertainment companies globally, including Disney, Universal, Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros; the National Theatre, and the Royal Opera House provide substantial marketing support on an on-going basis to promote their content at local venues, making them relevant all year round.
  • Cinemas offer an entertainment and multi-arts venue with an ever-broadening offer, driven by the developments in technology, flexible distribution, new types of content and local demand for all ages and demographics.
  • Flexibility to programme a Kid’s Club screening; family afternoon visits on a rainy day; a live theatre screening; the latest blockbusters with friends; weekend date nights followed by a meal at a local restaurant; the hosting of a business conference.
  • Cinemas are welcoming places, and they have a significant positive economic and social impact, particularly in the post work 6pm – 9pm time period throughout the year as a place of entertainment.
  • In a survey conducted at Silverburn Shopping Centre and replicated elsewhere, the addition of a cinema increased footfall by 8% and food and drinks sales by over 11%.
  • Innovation has provided an opportunity to deliver greater customer choice which is in turn driving greater consumer demand. With the flexibility and quality of the latest sound and vision technology, cinemas can range in size from 4,000 sqft to 100,000 sqft of NLA.

A cinema venue will give local people the opportunity to see a film; provide employment in a key industry sector; and enable staff to reach out into the community to work on projects and initiatives that will ensure that the venue becomes a Cultural and Social Hub in the Town Centre. 

In Summary, a cinema venue located in a Town Centre will:

  • Be open for business every day and into the 6pm – 9pm dormant period and programme films at times that are convenient to all parts of the community.
  • Become the meeting place for a film, live event, coffee or to go on to having a meal at a local restaurant.
  • Create local jobs directly and indirectly (local restaurants and shops) which will have an economic and social impact all year round.”
The Birks Cinema Cafe Bar, Aberfeldy (land and buildings purchased in part with a grant of £320,000 from the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Regeneration Fund in 2009). Full history here.
Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Cinemas, Consumers, Creative Places, High Streets, Regeneration, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Social value, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stopping Doing Harm to our Town Centres

The Town Centre Action Plan Report (A New Future for Scotland’s Towns) has three types of recommendations.  Two of these are reasonably uncontroversial – planning, engaging more local people property and data on towns on the one hand and funding investment in towns and aligning programmes to enhance local impact and capacity on the other.

The third set of recommendations is perhaps another kettle of fish though.  It recommends we stop doing harm to our town centres.  Now I don’t think that should be controversial. But it is, because it challenges existing operations and funding, often allied to powerful vested interests.  And longer term it challenges the ways some (many?) of us live and behave; mainly those who can afford choices.

Our recommendations stem from at least four inter-linked positions:

  • Asking councils to forego income (e.g. rates relief, free town centre parking) is neither a sensible  nor sustainable way forward – it is asking for short term sticking plasters from austerity-hit and income- poor authorities
  • We can’t go on allowing activities and companies to flourish beyond the tax regime if we want to have the social goods to meet all our societal needs.  Taxation has to reflect activity.

Being positive about town centres and suggesting we stop rewarding those that damage them seems an obvious step.  We need to get beyond the whether and focus on the how.  This is not an either/or, it is about basic fairness for people, but we also need basic fairness for businesses (large and small, corporate, cooperative, independent) and organisations (third sector, community, development trusts etc) as well.

I wrote a longer piece on these issues a week or so ago, some of which was used in a recent Herald article. I post what was written here in case anyone is interested:

“The time has come to put our town centres first. And fast. We simply cannot continue with the cards stacked against them as they are. It’s abundantly clear that the world in which we find ourselves compels meaningful – sometimes difficult – action to deliver radical change.

When it comes to Scotland’s towns and town centres, that means righting some wrongs and creating a fairer playing field on which town centres have the best opportunities to not just survive, but to thrive; an environment where it is cheaper and more attractive to invest in them, for the good of people, planet and the economy.

We need to create communities which are cleaner, greener and more equitable. To achieve that, governments (local and national) need to tackle the systematic inequalities which are holding back our town centres and focus on making them deliver.

The Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, which I chaired, this week published its recommendations on how Scotland’s town centres can become stronger and more sustainable, helping to meet our climate change targets. A major focus of the recommendations is to stop supporting activities which damage town centres. We suggest a number of approaches

One urges a five-year moratorium on out-of-town developments. Contentious? Perhaps. But 60 years of disaggregation in development needs to be reversed.

This decentralisation – driven by car use – has resulted in a hollowing out of activities from town centres. It’s led to the construction of off-centre mono-format developments, and this goes well beyond retailing, which has left local services being insufficient to meet local needs – or inaccessible without a car.

It has resulted in less active travel and created issues around the sustainability of public transport. It does nothing to tackle climate change and impacts negatively on our society too.

Some might view this too blunt an approach. Yet I believe it’s necessary as a starting point. Out-of-town needs to be the exception rather than the rule.

Developments of all kinds must be focused on town centres. That means the incentives to invest must be better, with our taxes reflecting our ambitions and activities. Town centres need to be cheaper places to turn to – and they should be easier to develop and operate in, including by community and third sector organisations, and for a diversity of activities and functions.

It’s not right that there are incentives for developing out of town which do not exist in town centres. I am clear in my view that Non-Domestic Rates need overhauled and substantially replaced. Rates need to be reduced for town centres and increased elsewhere. This would help bring more businesses and people into our towns, reducing inequality of access. It needs to be cheaper to rebuild and renovate our heritage in town centers than eat up greenfield and other land.

Taxes generally need reformed. We make clear that taxation needs to reflect the society we are now and not what we were. Various models of digital tax must be explored as a matter of urgency, ideally linked to reducing carbon emissions.  We all use social goods such as the NHS; we all need to pay towards it. Because some companies are not doing anything wrong by not contributing currently, that does not make it right.

We, of course, need to make it easier to get into towns, which is why I hope that an out-of-town car parking space levy would begin to help address that. This would be an income stream for enhancing public transport and other forms of active travel so that they can be developed to improve town centre access.

Make no mistake, the task of reinventing and rebuilding town centres is not easy – and may not be as quick as we would like – but we must ignite that debate, begin the process of change and then accelerate it. To achieve that we first need to acknowledge what’s broken and take steps to put it right – however challenging that may be. The focus which we advocate, and its emphasis on local, community, fairness, wellbeing, inclusion and equality, is in the national interest.”

Posted in Climate Emergency, Community, Government, High Streets, Housing, Internet, Local Authorities, Offices, Out of Town, Places, Property, Public Policy, Rates, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Social Renewal, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Webinar: “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”

The Town Centre Action Plan Review was published on the 3rd February. On the 18th February (1430-1530), Scotland’s Towns Partnership are holding a webinar launching the Review. There may be few spaces left (but capacity is close to being reached) and you can register to attend on the STP website.

I am using a slide deck. I tend to speak to slides and off the cuff rather than to a scripted speech. I have though recorded a 10 minute trial run through of the presentation and have edited the transcript, which forms the text below. I am not likely to say EXACTLY the same things in the webinar, but the transcript and text below provides a flavour of what I might say. Both slides and transcript can be downloaded below.

“In July 2020 I was asked by Aileen Campbell, Cabinet Secretary to chair a Town Centre Action Plan Review Group. We’ve now produced the final report from that review group entitled A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres.

The review of the Town Centre Action Plan was asked to do a number of things. We were asked to review progress and scope since the development of the Town Centre Action Plan and to produce a revised vision for towns. That vision needed to meet the climate change ambitions and to develop healthier, vibrant, greener town centres. The aim was to produce a vision, but also how we might implement that vision.

Over the last decade, Scotland has led the way in terms of the United Kingdom and Ireland in the way it looked at town centres. The National Review of Town Centres, led by Malcolm Fraser in 201/ 13 was a major step forward. And from that, the Town Centre Action Plan was developed and then implemented.

COSLA and the Scottish Government produced the town centre first agreement, which developed additionally into the place principle and recently the place based investment programme.

So Scotland has a very sound basis on which to look at how it’s dealing with towns.

But as ever, there are many things that can be done better. Over that last decade, the country has rather enhanced ambitions. We’ve developed a much stronger framework around community empowerment. The government has indicated the response it needs for the climate emergency and has developed a series of national outcomes and tied those to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. A focus on wellbeing and inequalities and now on social renewal have also been hallmarks of the way in which the last decade has changed.

So it’s timely that we’re moving forward the Town Centre Action Plan.

That would have been true in any case, but it’s been further made a priority by the rapid spread of Covid 19 over 2020 in Scotland which has exacerbated existing inequalities, and provided some new ones as well. But within that, we’ve also seen people emphasise the value of local, neighbourhood and community and those are positive things. We’ve also exposed, in some cases, local supply chains and a lack of local resilience. And in responding to those challenges, local governments and others have produced new, simpler forms of working together.

So there are lessons we can take from the way in which we responded to the pandemic and the things that the pandemic exposed in terms of our communities and towns.

In looking at the oral and written evidence that we received and, public surveys, and the previous work that’s been carried out, we decided to adopt a vision. Towns and town centres are for the well-being of people, planet and the economy. Towns are for everyone, and everyone has a role to play in making our towns and town centres successful.

This reflects the change in terms of community and climate, but also that we have to work in partnership together, if we’re going to make our towns and town centres succeed.

Whilst we have a sound basis on which to build, there is still an opportunity to strengthen the existing national policy context. However, even if we strengthen everything, it’s very clear that many of the activities that are carried out cause harm to our town centres and there is often a financial and other benefit to those activities. And that’s something we probably need to stop doing. Thirdly, we’ve done a number of pilots and other demonstration projects at the local level, and there’s been many excellent activities that have occurred in towns and town centres. We can extend those and extend our approaches and accelerate town centre renewal.

So we developed three types of recommendations.

Recommendation one is to strengthen the formal positioning of towns and town centres in national planning. That would include a requirement to produce town and town centre plans and to have those co-produced with communities, involving everyone in the community in looking at their place and the uniqueness of their place. We need to enhance data collection use at the town and town centre level. We’ve made a good start to that, but there’s so much more that could be done both in quantitative data but also the lived experiences of people about their towns and town centres.

Secondly, we need to look at the current tax, funding and development systems to ensure that those ambitions (wellbeing, the economy in climate outcomes, fairness and equality) are at the heart of those systems. Currently, in many ways, we tend to reward activities that damage our town centres. We need now to really reverse that and level the playing field.

There are a range of suggestions here. They require more emphasis and a lot more effort to think through. But we need very seriously to address these issues. This will include amendments to the non-domestic rates, looking at the balance between in town and out of town developments, and in terms of the costs of reusing buildings as opposed to new development. Recognising the shift in terms of many activities to digital, we need to think about how tax can reflect the new economy and therefore look at digital tax.

It would be appropriate if we’re thinking about climate to introduce a new out of town car parking space levy. And we’re not talking just about retailing her, but a range of out of town uses. We need to emphasise the way in which active travel and other benefits can be delivered on the other hand.

Over a period of at least five years, we probably need to introduce a moratorium on out of town development and further focus developments within town centres.

Our third recommendation is that we need to expand and align funding for towns, town centres and projects.

We have an overall request that the Scottish government continues to expand and further align the funding available. The funding for town centre activities has to be substantial, has to be multi-year, and it needs to cover both revenue and capital spend. There’s been a very good start in terms of substantial sums of money and for guarantees over a period of time. But we also need to do more work about the balance of revenue and capital so we don’t just transfer assets and buy buildings. We know how to run them and can get community groups, development trusts and others much more closely involved.

We need to make these projects focussed around particular themes. Some of these were present in the Town Centre Action Plan from 2013, but others can be developed further.

We need to expand town centre living so we have a range of different types of occupier and uses within town centres that will bring more life and footfall into the town.

We need to emphasise the digital skills and uses that can be in towns and we need to make sure businesses and enterprises and the people within towns are skilled up to use the digital skills that we need, for the future economy. We should focus very much on enterprise in communities, and think about a strategic acquisition fund to alter the ownership, development and uses in town, particularly around local small business, community enterprises and entrepreneurship around local and circular economy. This is building very much on the ideas behind community wealth building.

And then we need to think about how we respond to climate change within town centres. We should focus on projects that can build out of existing programmes in climate action towns, think about microgeneration of energy, roof retrofitting of town centre buildings, about green jobs, alter space allowances within town centres for active travel, how pedestrians move around, and the green spaces and social settings that we have, so towns are more pleasant places, but also more resilient places. Generally, socially and also in terms of climate change, much of that also can be thought about in terms of the 20 minute neighbourhood concept.

To conclude, the current narrative that we see about town centres has often been a bit negative about the decline or the death of the town centre. That’s very much overstated. One of the things the pandemic has shown us is how people want to be together, and value the social element of the ways in which we live our lives.

Decline is clearly not inevitable. We’ve encouraged it. We can now reverse it.

Towns can and should be the heart of the community, delivering for people, the planet and the economy. We need to make this happen. We believe that the recommendations, if implemented, can really help to do this.

There’s far more information on the review, detail about the way in which we got to these recommendations and the detail behind them in the final report, which can be downloaded from the Scottish Government website, on futuretowns.scot and on this blog. There’s also more information on futuretowns.scot on the oral and written evidence and the background material.”

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Barclay Review, Car Parking, Climate Emergency, Community, Community Assets, Community Ownership, Creative Places, Government, High Streets, Leadership, Legislation, Local Authorities, Localisation, Places, Public Policy, Public Realm, Rates, Regeneration, Regulation, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Small Towns, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Streets, Streetscapes, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places, University of Stirling, USP | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres – (1) Introduction to our Report

Full Report can be downloaded here

This is the first of three linked posts on the Town Centre Action Plan Review Group Report (an introduction, summary of the review approach, recommendations). The full report and details of the Review Group, evidence submitted and heard and background and other material can be found at www.futuretowns.scot

In July 2020, I was asked by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Communities, Aileen Campbell MSP to Chair a Review Group considering the Town Centre Action Plan and activities to support towns since 2013. The background to the Review, as well as the remit, have been covered previously in this blog. The Group was asked specifically to consider how Scotland’s towns could be made greener, healthier, more equitable and inclusive places.

In publishing the Review Group’s Report today, a number of thanks are in order : to the Review Group members for their time, input and energy; all the individuals and organisations who provided background material and written and oral evidence; and the support team and secretariat for keeping this focused and on schedule.

I fully appreciate that not all those who inputted will necessarily recognise their contributions and some will feel either their interests have not been taken into account or that we have not gone far enough to meet their desires. But in coming to our recommendations we were guided by the national need (as articulated in the National Outcomes) and by the task we were set by the Cabinet Secretary.

Towns are beginning to get the focus that require. Commitments to new approaches (The Place Principle, Community Wealth Building, 20 minute Neighbourhoods) and the Place Based Investment Programme provide a different and supportive context. We have the strong background and development since 2013 on which to build as well. We need though, and can, strengthen further the policy background and support for towns, and this is the first of our recommendations.

Even with this though, there is an inherent problem. We could spend hundreds of millions, if not billions, supporting town centres (and the “high street”). Yet, our system is often biased towards out-of-town and away from town centre activities, often reinforcing inequalities and emphasising private transport. If we are serious about supporting town centres to meet their potential and the national need, then these anomalies must be tackled. We need to make Town Centre First work if we are to change the future to be greener, healthier and more equitable and inclusive. Our second recommendation is therefore a number of actions to rebalance the playing field and to support town centres and withdraw active support for out of town activities. These are not easy issues and are arguably the more controversial aspects of our report (revised rates system, VAT revisions, digital tax, out-of-town car parking space levy, moratorium on out-of-town development). These are difficult issues, but they are the key to addressing the problem, and just because they are difficult does not mean that they can be ignored or postponed if our motivation is to truly turn around our town centres.

Then, thirdly, we need further and local initiatives to deliver the changes required from the local ground up. New approaches to town living, digital skills and use in towns, enterprising communities and climate change response in towns are needed urgently. We know some of things that work, but there are so many avenues that can be explored further locally, to meet local circumstances and to involve and engage the local community from the outset. These initiatives will help us focus on meeting disadvantage, reducing inequality and building locally sustainable and resilient economies and societies, including through strengthened local, community and co-operative enterprises. Much of this can align with initiatives on the environment, well-being, sustainability and new jobs.

The best of our towns and town centres provide a sustainable local economy and society with diverse and mixed uses attracting and meeting the needs and desires of their local communities. They are places that enhance a sense of community, identity and engagement and include and reflect all members of society. They are so much more than a focus for retailing, as important as that can be.

Towns and town centres can deliver many of the ambitions for Scotland and its people.  They can only do this however if they focus around the specific needs of their local communities and ensure all community voices are engaged in developments.  Town centres can be places we can be proud of and which provide social, economic, cultural, creative, environmental, entrepreneurial and local opportunities for all citizens.  This can be done, but we need to prioritise, support and actively rethink what we want in our town centres and show how this removes inequalities of place and identity and enhances the wellbeing of all those that live in and use them.  We believe our recommendations, if adopted, will help on this journey and will result in greener, healthier, fairer and more successful town centres.

Associated posts: (2) Summary of the review approach and (3) Recommendations

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Community, Community Assets, Government, High Streets, Places, Public Policy, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments