Scotland’s Towns Conference 2019


One of the now established features of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Scotland’s Towns Week is the Annual Conference.  For many years it has been located in the Central Belt, but for 2019 it relocated to Aberdeen.  There are many good reasons for this, not least the work of the BID (Aberdeen Inspired) and the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils to put place and town centres at the heart of their policy agenda.  Thus a large audience assembled at the newly renovated Music Hall on Union Street on the 20th November.

Such is the Conference that it is impossible to do justice to the range of topics, speakers and discussions, so what follows is a very personal flavour of this year’s event.  The full programme is pictured below and STP can be contacted for information, contacts or other elements of the day, and you can see information posted on some of the discussions on Twitter using #STC19.


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One feature of the day was the showcasing of elements of the Town Centre Action Plan (and subsequent developments) in action.  From the opening presentations on Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and the Town Centre First Principle in action through relocation and developments into town centres, through to sessions on cleaner, greener places and healthy towns, the sense of purpose at a local level was palpable.

This was given added international perspective by two presentations from Ireland and The Netherlands.  Guilia Vallone, Senior Architect with Cork County Council combined her Sicilian heritage with the Irish situation to show how small towns could be made less car focused and more people friendly, notably by focusing on ice cream and octogenarians.  Places need to be people friendly and not as unfriendly as they currently are; and she said it is not actually that hard. A review of her presentation can be found in the Press and Journal.

Marken van den Boogaard, Strategist with Amsterdam and Partners explored a slightly different issue; how to refocus local and visitor attention away from the over-touristed Amsterdam City Centre and on to its hinterland.  The associative marketing strategy ‘rebranding’ places for visitors e.g. Amsterdam Beach for Zandvoort show how cities and surrounding areas and attractions can share the tourism ‘spoils’.  Though it does help if you have great public transport at your fingertips – a lesson for Scotland.

One of the pillars of the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and the subsequent work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership has been the focus and emphasis on bottom-up local processes rather than top down imposition of some remote non-community focused approach.  It was heartening therefore at the conference in presentation and the audience to see so many places and people embracing their local futures and leading the way.  It also means I can end with a quote from Russel Griggs, Chair of South of Scotland Economic Partnership in expressing his sense of what is going on in that part of Scotland; places he said feel that

“the world will not run them; they will run their world”



Posted in Aberdeen, Amsterdam, BIDS, Bids Scotland, Consumer Change, Cork, Creative Places, Development Trusts, Healthy Ageing, High Streets, Local Authorities, Localisation, Place Standard, Places, Policy, Public Realm, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Small Towns, Streetscapes, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shops: More or Less (and #IndieHour)

This blog has a number of recurring themes – or nightmares.  Most of them are focused around the themes of the mis-use of data, the lack of reaction about the structural change underway across retailing and the unwillingness of many to recognise the many positive stories about retailing that can be found in many places.

So it was with interest that I read a twitter DM from someone who shares these themes.  He pointed out that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.  There was a recent Which report about the growing number of independents in some towns, he noted, but also a report by Alvarez & Marshal which seemed to provide a more balanced view than many.  Also interestingly the coverage of this report focused on the rising operating cost structures of the retail sector and not on the normal ‘death of the high street’ nonsense.


Now the report does not make pretty reading.  It points to the structural changes underway, claims that retail multiples still have 20% too much space, focuses on the dichotomies within and between towns around the have’s and the have not’s (prime and other), and the rising (and crippling) cost structures for many retailers.  It makes a stark, and in my view overblown claim that 35% of sales will be online by 2024.  Even if that growth from now is half correct however, it is a scary number.

But what I find interesting in the report is, for once, an acceptance of the restructuring underway and an analysis and discussion of the methods and demands to manage and to meet the challenges.  In particular, it focus on adaptability and the coming consumer groups.

On the former it points to alterations in rents, leases, break clauses and a willingness to consider new models and approaches with regard to property.  On the latter, the report focuses on Generation Z, but points out that these digital natives are looking for entertainment, education, environment and escapism and that stores that embrace this are well placed to capture this market.  Ways of doing this are outlined.

So, for once, we have some engagement with what physical space IS needed and how it can be made progressive and dynamic for consumers.  This is a nice and welcome focus given the too easy stress on the vacated space from retail.


All of which is a way of introducing what I will be up to from 8-9pm on Tuesday 12 November. For a couple of years now, Richard Shorney has been running #IndieHour –  a weekly twitter chat for anyone remotely interested in the wellbeing of their town, village, High Street or community and making use of the independent small businesses that operate there. #IndieHour has been going for 2 years and has a weekly reach of 250k+ people

They have taken the rather extreme step of inviting me to be a guest. So if you want to see how it goes, take part or simply want to see what #IndieHour gets up to, then check out the #IndieHour hash tag and get involved.


Posted in #IndieHour, Collaboration, Consumers, High Streets, Independents, Internet shopping, Landlords, Online Retailing, Reinvention, Relationships, Rents, Retail Change, Retailers, Small Shops, Start-ups, Towns, Uncategorized, University of Stirling, Vibrancy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hull and Beyond


Three Ships in the Sky

I’ve never knowingly been to Hull.  It’s not that I’ve anything against Hull, just that the question of going there has never arisen.  I became a little more aware of it when it owned the accolade as UK City of Culture 2018, but it is only recently that it has cropped up even more.

The reason for this is the mural/mosaic Three Ships by Alan Boyson (in the picture above by Esther Johnson).

“Designed by Alan Boyson in 1963 for a Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store, the mural is a curved concrete screen depicting three stylised trawlers. The structure spells ‘HULL’ in the masts and bears the motto ‘prosper through industry’. The mosaic comprises 1,061,775 individual cubes. It was commissioned by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (now the Co-op Group) to celebrate the city’s maritime heritage.” (Co-operative News, August 2018)

What caught my attention was a campaign to protect the mural/mosaic from development and to obtain listed status for it (see @BhsMuralHull on twitter).  The ins and outs of this campaign are too much for this blog and are expertly covered elsewhere in any case.  Listed status was not yet been granted. Recently, and more worryingly, it was announced that despite promises the mural/mosaic would be ‘lost’ as the structure has asbestos in it.

The mural/mosaic has a number of things going for it in my book.  First, (whilst I appreciate art is in the eye of the beholder) it is in my view lovely, as well as being one of the largest (if not the largest in the UK) mosaics around.  Secondly, it is a mural/mosaic on a shop, and a Co-op shop to boot (though it did become a BHS in due course). This makes it part of retail heritage and many people know my interest in this.  And thirdly, there are lots of people who see it as an emblematic and iconic piece of art of its place. And it is this last point that I feel especially engaged with.

I am not an expert on listing or asbestos so what follows may be inaccurate and uninformed but REALLY?  We have a cultural icon, an emblem of a city, an identifiable association with place and a damn fine piece in its own right.  I fail to see why it would not be protected, especially given some of the things that are ….

And then if asbestos is protected/enclosed then the danger can be minimised and with safe handling could we achieve a solution?  Is this really beyond us, or is this a failure of will and money?  It’s of course so much easier to destroy then to conserve. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is so true in such situations.

I think campaigns such as this are important, as places are built on these shared icons and assets.  Memories and behaviours are constructed around them.  They act as symbols and identifiers of our shared heritage, and a shared future.  We are all diminished by this potential loss of The Three Ships, even if I have never seen it in the flesh.  It is a place anchor and as we lose these we lose our places. This is said so much better by Esther Johnson here, but as someone interested in the nature of, and focus on, thriving and identifiable places, it needs reiterating every time such central, iconic and memorable assets (and that is what it is) come under threat.

Now some might say, so what, that’s the way it goes. Hull has other things that say Hull. Hull might have, but the interest in, campaign about, and stories around the Three Ships suggests it is something special. From a retail perspective it is also of a time when retailers actually built shops that made a positive statement and became part of a place.

If you want to know more about the Three Ships and the various campaigns, films, events and memory and artefact capture around it, then take a look at the Ships in the Sky website (and which contains some great drone footage of the Three Ships) , set-up by Esther Johnson and project research assistant Leigh Bird through a shared exuberance for the Hull Coop/BHS building and the work of Alan Boyson, and follow on twitter.

There are two other murals by Boyson in the building and the hope is that these can be saved. There is also some hope that listing might yet be obtained for Three Ships, if the other works are also seen as valuable. It is for all these reasons above that I was more than pleased to sign the petition noted below



Posted in Art, BHS, Buildings, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Department Stores, Design, Historic Shops, History, Hull, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Retail History, Spaces, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Towns and Town Centres in Scotland: reflections six years on from Fraser

I was recently asked to do a 10 minute reflection on the state of towns and town centres in Scotland and the work that has derived from the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and from Scotland’s Towns Partnership. I thought it might be interesting to share this high level commentary.


In 2007/8 the global crisis and recession began.  One consequence was the primacy of vacancy as a measure of success or failure.  High streets were in crisis.  The Scottish Government in 2009 responded by launching a £60m town centre regeneration fund.  The UK Government invited a TV personality to investigate high streets.

Fraser and TCAP

In Scotland, wisely, the problem was seen not as one of high streets but of place and the Fraser Review of 2012/3 – the National Review of Town Centres – was swiftly followed by the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Action Plan.  These provided a ‘road map’ for Scotland which has come to be seen as a model.

The Fraser Review had 6 themes (town centre living, digital towns, proactive planning, accessible services, local economic growth and creative and entrepreneurial places) wrapped in two over-arching principles/needs; a town centre first policy (quickly signed by COSLA and Scottish Government) and the need for consistent and comparable data on towns.


Implementation can be described under three components.  An organisation – Scotland’s Towns Partnership – was empowered to bring together, learn from and amplify the towns activities and importance.  Various tools (Understanding Scottish Places, Towns Toolkit, Place Standard) were developed to aid communities in analysing their towns and starting informed conversations.  A number of mechanisms helped communities to deliver change in towns (BIDS, Development Trusts, Social Enterprises and the Community Empowerment Act).  It is not complete nor perfect but is a major step forward.

An Updated Fraser?

It is worth reflecting 6 years on, what themes a Fraser type exercise might produce now.  For me I think that a carbon neutral theme would be essential.  I feel the local economic growth theme could be reframed as inclusive local economies.  There is also a gap around culture which might be added to the creative and entrepreneurial theme or could be separate.

One of the things that has to be stated is that we have been at this for only 5 years.  We are trying to undo decades of neglect and damage.  In retailing we have spent almost 40 years adding space, mainly on greenfield and out-of-town sites.  Latterly we have seen 20 years growth of the internet leading to 20% of sales being online.  Consumer behaviour has also altered with convenience being a key theme together with price and for some experiences.  Consumers no longer change their patterns to visit the shops; they expect retailers to be in locations that suit their lifestyles.  We should not be surprised at shops closing and space being vacant – it is a consequence of all this development and change.  How we react to this and harness the opportunity is far more important.  These trends are not confined to retailing but affect other sectors.

The State of Towns

So what is stopping us imagining and redefining towns?  The cost base in towns is not sustainable especially when compared to other locations and online.  Landlords (often absentee) are divorced in many cases from reality and seek rent and covenant beyond sense.  We are too inflexible in our reactions, including for town centre living and alternative uses and in many places distinctiveness and ambition is lacking or is solely focused on nostalgia.

In contrast, towns that are doing better are often fortunate in their local community and its coherence and ability to work together.  An analysis of assets (physical and human) has led to a focus on the potential, not the past, and the possibilities, not the obstacles.  These places are often carving out and stating a clear identity and story and have independent and entrepreneurial businesses and organisations that buy into this.  They are essentially local and distinctive, meeting various consumers’ needs.


So, finally, what might make the situation better?  There is a need for funding for town centres.  This funding needs to be substantial, sustained but also targeted and directed.  It can not be a formulaic equal misery appropriation, which simply gets wasted.  Secondly local authorities need to be required to report on towns (as defined by USP) and to provide data and management at the place level not the arbitrary LA boundary level (or its subdivisions).  People live in towns and places; we need to understand them.  Thirdly, a number of issues have arisen about the community capacity deficit (e.g. in BIDS/SIDS, community councils, right to buy etc.).  We need to seriously tackle the lack of capacity and sustain the good activities.  This can not be left to chance and burn-out.

We should also bring in and then refine online/sales tax and reduce the burden on town centre, physical retailers and also entrepreneurs.  Longer term we need to tackle the issue of VAT on renovations and the non-level playing field this (and other fiscal and other measures) creates between town centres and out-of-town activities.  If nothing else our carbon neutral ambitions demand this.

Posted in BIDS, Bids Scotland, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Creative Places, Development Trusts, Government, High Streets, Internet shopping, Local Authorities, Mary Portas, Online Retailing, Place Standard, Places, Planning, Policy, Rates, Regeneration, Reinvention, Rents, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Tax, TCRF, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Going Self-Service – a 70 year old revolution?

A few weeks ago a journalist rang and asked about the introduction of self-service retailing into the UK.  A particular question was about the way in which retailers converting to self-service in the 1940s and 1950s knew what to do and what principles they followed.  That made me think (yes, I know) and I half-remembered reading something a long time ago.  A rummage around and I came across the book I recalled – Going Self-Service? by Patrick Galvani and Arthur Arnell, dating from 1952 (that was not when I read it).

Self Service 3

As with such things, once found I can’t resist reading them again and this ‘practical guide to profitable self-service retailing’ is an interesting set of ideas that have endured and photos and tips on introducing self-service.  It is clearly a cheerleader for self-service. The authors were pioneers themselves and their confidence has of course been borne out.  But in re-reading the book (I last read it c1980) a number of other things struck me.  Some were issues that had always been in my mind but a couple were new.

The obvious element that comes through the book is the small scale of the stores involved.  It has always been the case that self-service in the UK began in small stores and helped energise the move to supermarkets and superstores, but the scale of the shops is strikingly small.  The UK photos in the book also stand in stark contrast to the UK and Canadian ones, where the scale of the stores is more apparent.

Self Service 4Self Service 2

The arguments for self-service are also well rehearsed and whilst targeted at the retailer also encompass the benefits for the consumer.  These also are well known and long-lasting and the benefits of being a first-mover are also extolled.  The perceived downside of self-service – shoplifting – (or pilfering as the book has it) – is tackled but the claims made that the social service support for the population will reduce the need to pilfer and that counter service has a higher rate of loss seem a little odd.

Galvani 1

Less obviously perhaps, on re-reading I was struck by the, with hindsight, clear need for a range of ancillary services to be developed at the same time.  The book ends with adverts for supplies of lighting, shelving, flooring, packaging, baskets, tills and check-out systems, price tickets, paper bags etc.  This is the paraphernalia of self-service that would not have needed to have been considered in the same way or to the same extent by traditional counter-service retailers.  I had not fully appreciated how the shift to self-service both required and assisted in the development of extensive ancillary industries.

Finally, and this is missed in the mists of time, the photos and the narrative point to the need, even as self-service is introduced, to maintain some counter service.  Rationing still existed at the time the book was published and so service counters were still needed to manage some products and the rationing system itself.  Another stark difference to the American examples.



It is interesting that many of the principles set out can be seen in the operation of modern stores.  The scale and the detail has changed but the similarities are there.  I was also taken by the opening sentences of chapter one:

“… the troubles facing a retailer have slowly increased.  Competition, staff problems, lower margins, higher wages, shrinkages, wastage, rising overheads ad various other difficulties have forced many a shopkeeper to close down and make others wonder whether or not it is worth while carrying on”. (P9)

The answer to these problems, according to the authors was self-service.  This of course ended up exacerbating competition and encouraging the development of new formats.  The same problems are with us today in grocery/retailing and seen in the stresses on the sector.  The ‘how to’ book on automated stores and intelligent automated reordering can only be around the corner.  The drivers and pressures seem very similar today.


Galvani P. and A. Arnell (1952) Going Self-Service?  A practical guide to profitable self-service retailing.  Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London.

Posted in Consumer Change, Customer Service, Express Dairies, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail innovation, Retailers, Retailing, Self-checkout, Self-Service, Small Shops, Tesco, Uncategorized, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Multiplier and the Glue: Locally owned convenience stores and the local economy

Journal cover

Longer term readers of this blog will possibly recall a long standing interest in the impacts of small convenience stores on the local economy. This has taken the form of some discussion about what may be termed ‘the local multiplier’.

We have continued this work, in association with the Scottish Grocers Federation and some of their members. Some results from this research have just been published (see reference below) and I summarise this work here. The timing is rather apt as the ACS has also just produced its annual Local Shop Report, which again emphasises the scale and significance of the sector.

Our work is very much at the detailed level and attempted to consider not only the economic but also the social impact of local convenience stores. Much focus has been on the economic side (the ‘multiplier’ for the local economy) but we argue that the social function (the ‘glue’ for the local society/ community) is every bit as interesting and important.

Using both focus group and case study work our (Dr Maria Rybaczewska and myself) research attempted to understand the scale of local economic and social interactions and operations. This is not as straightforward as it seems, as sensitive data is needed and this data is also often collected and structured in incompatible ways in each of the businesses.  Some social dimensions tend to be understated: ‘of course we do that’.

Nonetheless, the work highlights the social and community emphasis of the retailers and the reasons and benefits they felt they achieved. On the economic side a range of direct impacts was identified and again the cohesion element of these was brought into focus. Figures were difficult to compare and impacts will be locally conditioned, but overall the combined social and economic effects were clear and consistent. Socially such stores are a lifeline for the community and sometimes very specifically for local residents.

It is interesting to speculate on how these impacts and elements differ by organisational format; this though was beyond the scope of this paper. ‘True’ independents will likely have different impacts and depth of engagement than corporate retailers or affiliated convenience stores. This remains work in progress. The main function of the paper is to emphasise the social impact of stores, rather than the routine consideration of economic impact alone. This paper shows how such retailers’ contribution to the local economy and community often goes under-acknowledged.


Rybaczewska M. & L. Sparks (2020) Locally owned convenience stores and the local economy. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services

Please contact or if you want further details or if you want the author copy of the manuscript it is available in the University of Stirling’s research repository (STORRE): Locally-owned convenience stores and the local economy at

Posted in Academics, Community, Consumers, Convenience stores, Customer Service, Independents, Local Multiplier, Local Retailers, Relationships, Retail Economy, Retailers, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Local Retailer, Uncategorized, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

London’s Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade

As a child I remember people mentioning the ‘milk train’ between London and South Wales, but was never sure if it was first up or last down or both. Before I married, my fiancée and I went to stay in Bermondsey with her aunt who had been in the milk trade in London, but was now running a local shop. Over time I became more aware of the strong Welsh links to London, centering historically on the milk business, developing out of droving activities. The Welsh had dominated the London milk business.

On our recent trip back to west Wales we ended up in a lovely book store in Cardigan (Awen Teifi Bookshop). Whilst my wife decided how many Welsh language books she could actually carry, I browsed and came across a book on the London Welsh milk trade, the families and their shops. Published by Y Lolfa in 2018, it had not come across my radar before.

Book Cover Dairies

The book tells the story, in both English and Welsh, of the milk trade between Wales (and especially Cardiganshire/Ceridigion) and London. It begins with the droving history but focuses mainly on the migration from Welsh speaking rural farming west Wales to urban sprawl London and the reasons, economics and cultural shifts within this. It is a tale of product distribution and industrialisation but also so much more.

At one level the book is inherently Welsh; being all about families and relationships and placing people in the patchwork of community of place, both in Wales and then in London. But it also contains a fabulous treasure trove of pictures of the retail stores that these families operated and some insight into the supply of milk to the growing English capital.

TH Jones Clapham Junction

These pictures are for me the essence of the book. They are a first class compendium of shopfronts (and very occasionally shop interiors) drawn from their family histories and memorabilia. As we found out with our Sanders saga, store interiors are often lost to history (anyone who wants to share any let me know) but these shop fronts provide a time capsule of retailing and products (not only milk, though getting milk direct from the cow in the back of the shop in the early days is one notable distribution solution). The quality and pride shine through.

Most of these stores are now long gone of course, defeated by retail progress and change (and sometimes by war-time bombing damage). But some still remain – albeit in other uses – and a few photos at the end of the book make this point. One in particular stood out (see below) and I am pleased to note that this is Grade II listed. Next time I am in London I want to seek it out.

J Evans cropped Conway Street

J Evans Conway Street interior

Original Photos of 35 Conway Street London by Leighton Morris

The author – Megan Hayes – sums up the history she portrays succinctly in terms of markets and change:

The drovers provided London with cattle bred on Welsh pastures, while dairy cattle keepers provided milk for the growing population of the city. That trade ultimately adopted and developed, by and large, by a population of dairymen mostly from Cardiganshire. Later, economic pressures led to their demise, yet some dairies survive to this day in the hands of people who are proud of their roots and origins

It is all too easy to be nostalgic for what was a very hard life – in the book, the families note that the milk business was a tough life, day in and day out – and we should try to avoid this. But we can I think revel in some of the shops and the people who created and ran them. This book allows us to do just that.

Megan Hayes (2018) Y Lon Laeth i’r Ddinas: Hanes Llaethdai Cymry Llundain/ Cows, Cobs and Corner Shops: The Story of London’s Welsh Dairies. Y Lolfa. ISBN 978-1-78461-526-0. £14.99.


Posted in Books, Buildings, Consumer Change, Consumers, Customer Service, distribution, Food, Food Retailing, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Independents, London, MIlk, Retail Change, Retail History, Sanders Bros, Shopfronts, Signage, Uncategorized, Urban History, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments