Conversation Piece: High-street strategy: recovery will take more than street parties and more bins

On the 15th July, the UK Government published its new high street strategy for England “Build Back Better: High Streets”. I was asked by The Conversation to prepare a peice about the strategy, its links to Covid recovery and its chances of success.

The resulting Conversation piece has now been published and can be read in its entirety here. As ever with writing in that form, there are compromises and trying to explain compex issues simply in a short space can be a challenge (well, for me).

I don’t intend to simply reblog the piece here, as the layout and embedded visuals are part of what The Conversation does and add to my words. The final piece covers the myth of the “death of the high street” and the relationship between high streets and town centres and communities. It links to the changes brought on by the pandemic before considering the published strategy and its five priorities and the chances of success.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I think the strategy (if it can be called that) is missing key elements and in my view is a cosmetic exercise that does not either understand, nor address, the fundamental issues that underpin the changes we are seeing in high streets and town centres. We should reflect that in many places things are much better than the headlines would us believe. Those successes are often due to a focus on local businesses, local enterprise and engagement and making sure communities are engaged, involved and empowered. I don’t believe this strategy helps that.

The Prime Minister’s Foreward is worth a read to get a feel for the document. I would sum it up as “look on the bright side” (and after all almost 30% of the pages contain photos of high streets and town centres in full sun). He makes a plea for lots more pavement cafes as it rains more in Naples, Italy than it does in Nottingham and for communities to come together on a National High Streets Day to clean up their high streets. Add to that money for more bins and you can be forgiven for being concerned that some of the fundamental problems and steps needed are not on his radar. Then there is the real worry of the damage that could be done by some of the implementation of spending plans and permitted development rights (as the TCPA commissioned research noted this week).

But, you can make up your own minds. The strategy is here, my Conversation piece is here. As I covered much of the background before, I end with a summary of the concluding part of my Conversation piece

“The government’s new “build back better” high street strategy lays out five priorities: breathe new life into empty buildings, support high street businesses, improve the public realm, create safe and clean spaces, and celebrate pride in local communities.

It is hard to discern what is new in all this and what the government’s real commitments are. For a strategy aimed at, as it states on page three, “clearing away pointless red tape”, it is heavy on reviews to be undertaken and guidelines, codes and manuals to be adhered to. The strategy does contain some welcome elements. It focuses on tackling empty buildings and freeing up space on pavements and roads for cafes and restaurants to add vibrancy. It highlights the need for more green space and increased investment in historic buildings.

Conversely, it has very little to say on the fundamental issues: business rates and operational costs; the inequality of car parking charges between town centres and out-of-town developments; the costs related to other modes of transport and access. It does not address ownership models for retail spaces, or the wider costs and logistics of operating on the high street. And it does not mention support for the local, independent businesses hit by the pandemic. Instead, it lays out controversial ways in which the government is relaxing (and seeking to further relax) planning and building-use regulations.

Providing money to local authorities does not necessarily empower communities. Beyond noting the need for an emotional connection between people and place, however, the plan is silent about how to include and engage those communities.

Research has highlighted several crucial needs: focused spending on local businesses; tackling problematic behaviour by corporations and absentee landlords; a rethink of how development and operational and fiscal systems might encourage – and not penalise – high-street activity.

By not considering the retail high street in the context of the people it serves, and in omitting these crucial needs, this strategy appears mostly a cosmetic one. It revolves around short-term lets for buildings, cleaner spaces (more bins) and street parties. We know recovery – and a sustainable high street future – requires much more than that.”

The Conversation piece was reblogged on the 9th September 2021 in the Business Reporter

Posted in community wealth building, Festivals, Government, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Mary Portas, Permitted Development Rights, Places, Planning, Policy, Public Policy, Public Realm, Regeneration, Regulation, Retailers, Retailing, Streetscapes, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Should Large Retail Stores be Open or Closed on New Year’s Day (Ne’erday) in Scotland ?

Invitation to Respond to Consultation (closing date 24th August 2021)

A Scottish Government consultation seeking the views of business, retailers and shop workers on New Year’s Day trading has been published. Running for 10 weeks until 24 August, the consultation aims to determine whether the current law should change and restrict large retailers from trading on New Year’s Day as is the case on Christmas Day.

Affected stakeholders, including large retailers and their staff, are strongly encouraged to participate in the consultation which follows a parliamentary petition (driven by the shopworkers union, USDAW) calling for trading on 1 January to be prohibited. Responses from anyone can also be made.

In launching the consultation, Public Finance Minister Tom Arthur said:

“The last year has shown how much we all rely on retailers and their staff who have supported the country during the pandemic. As we look at recovery and building a sustainable economy we need to consider what will support businesses and their staff in the future. Following a petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee calling for trading to be banned on New Year’s Day, the Scottish Government has been engaging with business groups, trades unions and others to understand what impact this would have on business and staff. This consultation will help us to determine whether the current law should change and restrict large retailers from trading on New Year’s Day, as they currently do on Christmas Day.”


The Christmas and New Year’s Day Trading (Scotland) Act 2007 (the Act) stops large retail stores from opening on Christmas Day. The responses in the consultation will help Scottish Government Ministers decide whether to make an Order under the Act that large shops should also close on New Year’s Day.

The Act applies to all retail businesses that have 280 m or more of floor space for customers including that used for display purposes. In addition to those shops that do not have a floor space of 280 m or more, other businesses are exempt from this law and include:

  • businesses that wholly or mainly sell meals, refreshments or alcohol for consuming on the premises, such as pubs, restaurants, cafes
  • businesses that sell meals or refreshments to order for consuming off the premises such as takeaways
  • registered pharmacies that are open only to dispense prescription drugs, medicines or appliances
  • businesses sited within a port, railway station or commercial airport
  • businesses in a motorway service area
  • businesses that wholly or mainly sell fuel for motor vehicles (petrol stations)

Larger shops are currently permitted to trade on New Year’s Day in the other home nations but are required to close on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday (not Scotland), and are subject to trading restrictions on Sundays (not Scotland).

There are further details of the petition and its background available, with the full consultation paper and supporting documents also available. There is particular interest in seeking views of retail businesses and shop workers, but anyone can respond to the consultation questions via the Citizens Space site.

The Points of Contention

I have never felt the need, desire, or on occasions, the capability, to go shopping on New Year’s Day, though I know people who do and have. The petition and thus the consultation was started by USDAW, and not suprisingly they feel that shop workers deserve a day off at this particularly Scottish festive time. They argue that this is about people’s wellbeing and family and social life. The details of their views can be found via the links above. Not suprisingly also, the Scottish Retail Consortium (representing the large store retailers) are against the plan, arguing for freedom of choice for businesses, consumers and workers, sector unfairness if only confined to large retail outlets (why not small stores, hospitality and so on) and the perverse stimulus this might give to online retailing as opposed to retailing in city and town centres, and other forms. Their views are also available via the links above.

Similar arguments have been made around Christmas Day of course (and Easter Sunday elsewhere in the UK). Much depends on your view of the specialness of these days, and in this case, New Year’s Day, and what that special nature should be about. Is it about families enjoying each other’s company or about families going out, including here, shopping? But at what cost, and to whom? There can be a premium for working on New Year’s Day, which may attract some workers, but then there can be the feeling of compulsion in some quarters. One person’s freedom to shop is another’s requirement (or desire) to work.

Whatever your view, have your say.

Posted in Christmas, Competition, Consumers, Employees, Employment, Internet shopping, New Years Day, Online Retailing, Opening Hours, Petitions, Regulation, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scottish Government, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Sunday Trading, USDAW | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grocery Market Shares in Great Britain 1997-2021

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have, since 1997, been using Kantar data to look at the changing grocery market shares in Great Britain.  Taking July data each year this series now extends almost a quarter of century.  I have reflected on this series before both generally and specifically last year in the eye of the pandemic and lockdown.

The data for this July have now been released and as ever I encourage you to go to the original and have a play around with their tools and also check out their recent commentary.

In my post of last year, I focused on a range of (for me) interesting points.   In the heart of the pandemic the grocery market expanded, local and independent businesses grow market share, online increased considerably (as did frozen food) but the leading retailers all lost market share.  Asda and Aldi seemed to be particularly adversely affected, as well as Waitrose.

Source: Kantar Worldpanel, data is July each year

The table shows the market share data for 2019, 2020 and 2021.  The grocery market is no longer as buoyant as before as lockdowns and restrictions on a range of activities and sectors recede.  Hospitality opening up for example has affected grocery sales and online figures.  The table shows that Tesco and Sainsbury have rebounded to previous market share levels, but that Asda and Morrisons remain at their lower level (something that the new owners of Asda and possible new owners of Morrisons will be interested in).  Aldi has also recovered growth (as has Waitrose).  Conversely the co-operatives and the symbols/independents seem to be settling back, though remaining above the 2019 figures.

In short, the pattern pre-pandemic seems to be restabilising itself.

This is also shown in the long run graph below, focusing on market share since 1997 for the leading three grocery retailers and the discounters.  The discounter rise has resumed but Asda are back where they started in 1997. 

Source: Kamtar Worldpanel, data is July each year

The CR3 data shows the market share of the top 3 in the grocery market in Great Britain.  Last year it had reduced rapidly to 55.7%; close to where it was in 1997.  This however has altered this year as CR3 has increased to 56.3%.  This is the first increase in this measure for some years; steady decline had been the trend, showing the impact of the discounters. This year’s level is still well below the CR3 measure 2007 peak. It is also below 2019 (57.4%), re-establishing the rate of decline seen pre-pandemic.

Source: Calculated from Kantar Worldpanel data (July)
Posted in Aldi, Asda, Competition, Consumers, Convenience, Cooperatives, Discounters, Food Retailing, Grocery, Independents, Internet shopping, Kantar, Lidl, Local Retailers, Longitudinal Data, Market Shares, Ocado, Retail Change, Retailers, Sainsbury, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small Shops: Brian Lomas

I have just been alerted (thanks to @LeighVBird) to a book recently published by the modernist on the topic of Small Shops. It consists of 45 black and white photographs of small shops from North Manchester, taken in the early 1980s – and a self photograph of the photographer Brian Lomas from the same period.

There are no words of description or commentary on the photographs. Each one is simply captioned with the line of business, the broad location and the year. Most, though not all, are of the exterior of the shops.

It is a lovely little book, redolent of a different time. Yet, this is an era I can recognise and stores that seem familiar in form, if not detail. It is hard (for me at least) to think of these being almost 40 years ago, yet of the 1980s.

No doubt readers, in looking at the photographs will make their own thoughts about the shops, society and economy and what we have lost and/or gained since then. At this point in time, the out of town superstore era was about to mushroom, the Thatcher government was massively relaxing planning restrictions and big retail was booming (the start of the era of “Cathedrals of Consumption”). These photos are the last rites on a dying format.

Orginal ophoto by Brian Lomas

Yet, they hold fascination, meaning and hope for me.

Many of the shops show their history. Located in populated streets, often on the corner of intersections of houses (see also for example the Welsh Dairies in London and many of the Sanders Bros sites discussed before) and with detailed design and tiling, these stores are of the place and community and of the time. They wear their history, of the location or of the shop and shout their embeddedness in their community. Their personality and individuality shine out from their design and idiosyncrasies.  Yet, these photographs were capturing the stores at the end of their lives; indeed many of these buildings may have now gone. The decline is obvious in the detail and the radical change to large format mass retailing soon swept them away.

Perhaps though we are now in a different cycle and place. Community and local independent businesses are increasingly recognised and valued. We desire again that store personality and individuality. Creativity, craft and local traceability are more significant again. And we thankfully seem to be valuing better design, a sense of place and protecting some of the legacies of the past (see Ships in the Sky in this regard). Retailing and places need to be interesting and engaging. This book reminds us of the power of personality.

To coincide with the book, the modernist is hosting an exhibition of 24 of the photographs in its gallery at 58 Port Street, Manchester, until 1st September. Details and how to order the book can be found at the modernist.

Brian Lomas (2021) Small Shops. Gomer Press. ISBN 9780109264718-0-1.

Posted in Architecture, Community, Consumer Change, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Independents, Local Retailers, Manchester, Neighbourhood, Retail Change, Retailing, Small Shops, Social Change, Urban, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scotland Loves Local: The Next Phase

As part of the response to the pandemic and the focus that has been turned onto neighbourhoods, localities and local businesses, the Scotland Loves Local campaign was launched in late July 2020. It proved to “hit the spot” with many people, consumers, communities and businesses.

Some of this hugely positive response derived from the exploration of local neighbourhoods that was “forced” on people during lockdown. This led to a recognition of the sheer variety and scale of local businesses and the quality they provide. A more fundamental point however is the increasing recognition of the role of local businesses and communities in providing economic and social strength at a local level. Independent, local, community and social businesses are the economic and social “glue” of communities, and more and more people are recognising this, and acting accordingly. Supporting local businesses in local communities provides enhanced local value through money, jobs, engagement and community.

Scotland Loves Local Awards

The breadth and depth of this Scotland Loves Local movement has been considerable and at the end of June to recognise again this tremendous local effort, the Scotland Loves Local Awards were announced as opened for nominations. These Awards recognise individuals and organisations which are making a difference to life in their area, The Awards are organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) to celebrate all that is great about towns and neighbourhoods – recognising creativity and commitment towards shaping a sustainable successful future. Further details, how to nominate for the various categories and important dates including the Awards ceremony can be found at Scotland Loves Local.

Scotland Loves Local Gift Card

The next phase of Scotland Loves Local launched this week, with the announcement of a Scotland Loves Local Gift Card, backed by Scottish Government, organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership and delivered with Perth-based fintech specialist Miconex (who have a long standing interest in place marketing and the role of data and gift cards). This will see the creation of Gift Cards for each of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, each of which can be spent in that specific region.

STP and Miconex are working with local authorities to launch the regional gift cards, with the first year of costs being met by the Scottish Government as part of its £10m of support for Scotland Loves Local. There are no registration costs for businesses. Payments are processed as part of the Mastercard network. Local cards will be rolled out in a series of regional launches over the coming months, as councils agree to promote the programme in their area.

Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth Minister Tom Arthur urged businesses across the country to sign up to be part of it. “The Gift Card is a quick and efficient way to encourage spend and drive sales growth in our local economies. Thanks to Scottish Government funding, this is the first of its kind on a national scale and I look forward to seeing businesses benefit from the opportunities it presents. In the coming months we will further bolster the Scotland Loves Local (SLL) campaign with the second tranche of our SLL Fund, helping communities revitalise their own towns or neighbourhoods, building wealth and delivering greater, greener and fairer prosperity.”

Directors of The Guild Dumfries, from left, Kirsten Scott, Natalie Farrell and Leah Halliday, promoting the new Scotland Loves Local Gift Card in Dumfries town centre. Stuart Walker Photography 2021

As businesses emerge from Covid restrictions and high streets fully reopen and resume trading, the gift card can benefit local people, local businesses and individual local economies. Local businesses have been there for their communities over the past year, and this scheme allows local people to further support them. Spending through a Scotland Loves Local Gift Card has multiplier effects which go far beyond the point of purchase. Using the card keeps people within their local area, supporting businesses as they buy. Research shows that most money spent in the local economy is then respent locally, further supporting local jobs and making local businesses more sustainable. Add to that the local product and services purchases and employment generated by local businesses and it is easy to see why local spending is worth millions of pounds to Scotland’s local and regional economies.

Scotland Loves Local Fund

As noted in my recent review in this blog of the STP year, The Scotland Loves Local Fund was launched in October 2020 to improve and promote local place and communities through capital or revenue grants of between £500 and £5,000. Projects included small scale local improvements, including those contributing locally to net-zero targets and supporting localised responses in town and settlement centres, such as, ‘Love Local’ marketing campaigns, environmental/place improvement, digital trading infrastructure, safe trading facilities, town signage/maps and local marketplace initiatives.  With 193 individual town applications and 35 awards to multi-town partnership projects, the fund supported 261 towns across Scotland. The next tranche of finance for this fund will hopefully have a similar or greater reach and impact.

Think Local First

Communities and local spend and engagement have become ever more important over the past 18 months. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic a key focus of STP has been the Scotland Loves Local campaign, designed to encourage the public to ‘think local first’ and support their high streets safely and in line with public health guidelines. The Awards are there to recognise the amazing efforts that have been made. The Gift Card, further locking in spend to local communities and local businesses and multiplying its local impact, enhances the efforts underway across Scotland to strengthen local communities. The next tranche of the Scotland Loves Local Fund will add further to this momentum.

As Chair of STP I obviously believe in all this endeavour and am delighted by the support of Scottish Government and other partners (see website) setting the conditions for local communities to do what is best for them. However, as I also noted in my Report of the Review Group into the Town Centre Action Plan we need to combine this positive endeavour for a sustainable future with creating the conditions for development and activity to be naturally focused in our town centres and neighbourhoods, places and communities and not disaggregated and decentralised to their detriment. Scotland Loves Local has energised so many people and places across Scotland, and the new announcements will build on that; we need now to also ensure we continue to build on this basis. Think Local First applies not only to the public but to all tiers of government and all those involved in development and planning.

Posted in Community, community wealth building, Consumers, Gift Card, Government, Independents, Local Authorities, Local Currency, Local Multiplier, Local Retailers, Neighbourhood, Perth, Places, Retailers, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Shopping, Small Shops, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

St James Quarter – curating and change

Last week saw the opening of parts of the St James Quarter in Edinburgh.  Conceived a long time ago, and without any conception of the possibilities and impact of a global pandemic, the centre is in some ways of a different time and place.  A long time in the making, it is however beginning to open now, starting with the retail and hospitality components. According to the website:

St James Quarter is a new retail led, lifestyle district that fully integrates into and enhances Edinburgh’s City Centre providing an inspiring, attractive, and vibrant destination for locals and visitors to live, shop, eat, sleep and play. St James Quarter will house an enviable line up of restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, public spaces and leisure venues covering 1.7 million square feet. St James Quarter is set to become a welcoming cultural and lifestyle hub for art, culture and fashion that will complement the city’s world-renowned cultural offering and support its vibrant events calendar.”

When completed, with hotel, cinema and the rest of the various components, it will be a huge statement in the east end of the city core.  Something of this size and scope is bound to have a range of impacts at various scales.  It is these impacts that most journalists who contacted me around the opening were focused upon. (You can see how they used some of my comments in the media section of the blog).

St James Quarter is an asset for Edinburgh and whilst it will not be to the taste of everyone (and reading the website blurb above, it is not hard to understand why), it will be an attraction for businesses (new to Scotland retailers are present and coming) and for visitors and residents alike.  The website blurb continues: “St James Quarter is a brand-new, exciting hub created and curated for the people of Scotland“. It is going to be interesting to see if the people of Scotland recognise what has been “curated” for them.

St James Quarter furthers the move of the centre of gravity eastwards within the city, which is one of the concerns some have. This is however simply the latest in a series of changes over history in the city and in the core itself (which has of course moved over time). There will be impacts – how could there not be for something of this scale? Whilst it is a replacement for the much un-loved St James Centre which had outlived its design life, there is additionality here. It is the response to this scale, breadth and newness that will be important. 

Will there now be some scope for a more interesting, less corporate (even a non-curated) area in Edinburgh?  One has to think that there is a market for interesting, organic places. Can Princes St be rethought as something more than a shopping street? It really isn’t just this and we need to get beyond seeing it in such a mono-functional way. There is so much more that Princes St can be at the heart of a city, not just a shopping experience. I would be confident that this is additional to the attractions of the city, but work will have to be done (and is underway) to enhance other areas and attractions.

The next few years will be instructive in terms of the success (or not) of St James Quarter.  Opening in a pandemic, with reduced tourism and much lower commuting to work is a risk, but it will allow a transition as the city re-awakens.  Quite how things will go will be something that all will be interested in.

But for now, Edinburgh has a new shiny attraction and no doubt many will want to explore it – virus permitting. Whether it is “curated” to suit the needs of residents and tourists and they will want to return regualry will be a major test.

At the heart of St James Quarter is the new revamped John Lewis store, replacing its very tired offering in the pre-existing centre. But, in other news it has been confirmed that John Lewis will pull out of Aberdeen and thus have no stores north of the Central Belt. I remain of the view that this is a short sighted decision – I get the issues with the particular Aberdeen store and scale, but to walk away from the entire North of Scotland may not be easily forgotten (or perhaps forgiven). Especially as they announced this at the same time as the businesses within Aberdeen City Centre showed more confidence in their own city and future by voting in the 5 year re-ballot to continue their award winning Business Improvement District (Aberdeen Inspired). There may be lessons here.

Posted in Aberdeen, BIDS, City Centres, Edinburgh, John Lewis Partnership, Pandemic, Retailers, Scotland, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scottish Retailing, Shopping Centres, St James Quarter, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Towns, High Streets and Resilience: A Question for Policy?

“It is all too easy to talk about “bouncing back to where we were” without asking which “we” is counted and without asking whether “where we were” is a place to which a return is desirable”. (Vale, 2014, p198)

Some time ago I was invited to contribute a manuscript for consideration to a Special Issue of the journal Sustainability entitled Urban Retail Systems: Vulnerability, Resilience and Sustainability and edited by Herculano Cachinho and Teresa Barata-Salgueiro. The pandemic delayed the work on this paper and the Special Issue, but did have the benefit of allowing me to spend more time thinking about the right topic and focus. This became especially interesting in the light of chairing the Review Group of the Town Centre Action Plan. The referees have been very supportive and the paper is now available as a full-text here.

One of the phrases that has become very common in discussion about the pandemic and towns has been the concept of resilience. I have used it on a number of occasions, but perhaps unthinkingly (or at least with insuffucient care). This has become more apparent as the debate for post-Covid has switched to “return to normal” or “bounce back”. The often-stated desire to return post-pandemic to “normal” is confronting questions over whether the pre-pandemic “normal” was resilient, sustainable, or indeed desirable. Let’s be clear, what was going on before was not working and any return to that state or a bounce back without thought will fail society, community and I believe economy.

The aim of the paper is thus to consider how the current narrative in the UK (“death of the high street” and the decline of the town centre) has arisen, how this relates to the oft-demanded concept of resilience and what the implications might be for policy. Both conceptual and practical questions and contributions are identified and developed. It is necessary to note that this situation and narrative in the UK does not hold for every place, nor of course for every country. Large cities and towns and places elsewhere may be dominated, for example, by over-tourism or gentrification or be faced by other challenges. Different countries have experienced various dimensions of these issues in their towns and cities, and to differing extents and speeds. Within this, however, urban resilience and the place of retail is a common theme. The focus of the paper on Scotland provides thus both specific situations and responses but also allows wider principles, concepts and lessons to be considered.

The paper concludes as follows:

The “death of the high street” has become a commonplace way, especially in the UK, of describing the situation faced by retailers and town centres. Assailed by over half a century of disaggregation and decentralisation, retailing has become increasingly divorced from the communities it once served, and from their town centres. Discrete, car-borne trips to individual, decentralised spaces have become the norm for so many activities, including retailing. Public policy in the UK has more recently aimed at directing retailing to town centres and at protecting town centres. This has had some success, but the crisis of town centres has continued to develop, not least because the retail sector is experiencing massive change, now requires less space and is under severe commercial pressure. Sectors beyond retailing have been increasing their off-centre space and contribute further to the removal of functions from town centres. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the background to the rising interest in the concept of resilience for both the retail sector and town centres. Resilience, as shown in this paper, is a concept that has attracted increasing interest and its application to town centres and retailing has developed widely. Key topics include what makes a town resilient and how do we increase resilience of town centres, the retail sector and individual retailers? Increasing resilience has mainly focused on improving the attractiveness of town centres and retailers. Public policy in the UK has attempted to support this through protecting town centres, trying to improve the viability of town centres by easing new developments in town centres (housing, commercial and others) and by trying to reduce the extent of new competition. This, though, has only made small inroads to the situation. This may be because decentralisation in many sectors continues apace and the competition for town centres is already strongly established.

The example of Scotland used in this paper places policy towards town centres (and implicitly the resilience of town centres, high streets, and retailing) in a broad national context. Scotland has led the way in the UK in the last decade over how to try to support and enhance town centres. There have been successes. It is recognised, however, that even this approach does not go far enough, especially when new National Outcomes based around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are considered. The intersection of resilience and sustainability has become more important.

There is widespread acceptance that town centres need to be resilient. There is increasing agreement over what makes a good town centre. These reflect a set of implicit assumptions about benefits and desirability. Supporting “good” things has been seen as the way to deliver this resilience and positive places. The critique of the concept of resilience provided in this paper, and which implicitly underpins the proposals in the recent National Review in Scotland (and other work being undertaken by the Scottish Government), points to the need to confront a wider set of tensions. It also indicates a need to revisit the reasons we intervene in the market, particularly in the light of demands for places (towns) to be healthier, greener, and more sustainable, given the climate emergency and sustainable goals. Five tensions are considered here.

First, in the context of town centres and retailing, there needs to be more clarity around the concept of resilience and particularly the purpose of resilience. The current assumptions about the benefits of resilience for a location need to be explicitly outlined for (by) that town and the community; too often this is not done, and it is not clear who benefits from resilience, why and to what effect.

Secondly, the focus in town and town centre resilience is often on capacity to rebound, absorb or counteract type constructs. The reality, however, may well be that the system is not working for the local community or town and there are many problems of access, unmet demand and a lack of wider, local inter-relationships and networks. Resilience thus has to encompass the idea that there could well be a considerable challenge to the existing order of things, ways of acting and types of organisations and impacts, if a place or town is to be resilient. Towns are about communities, and thus resilient towns need to be about resilience for the benefit of that community. The origins of the issues might differ in various towns and indeed countries, but the underlying principle holds.

Thirdly, there are clearly locational and sustainable tensions in town centre resilience. Many towns have been challenged by the ongoing decentralisation of activities (not just retailing). These are increasingly being recognised as unsustainable development, with wider detrimental effects. The challenge posed by the concept of the 20-min neighbourhood is about making locations work for the community using active travel modes, by having residences and facilities located in reasonable proximity. The challenge is to stop supporting damaging decentralisation and unsustainable activities. One approach is to rethink the cost structures of development. This implies changing cost burdens, including a greater recognition of the inappropriate balance currently between in-town and out-of-town development and operations, new build and renovation cost disparities and the imbalance between private and social costs and benefits.

Fourthly, there is a more fundamental issue over how the system works and for whom. The dominance of a small number of large firms in many sectors and their reliance on their national and international networks cause issues for the resilience of towns and local businesses. Community Wealth Building as a concept focuses on how activities are performed, who performs them and how well they perform them in terms of how they are organised, who is engaged and who benefits. This implies a different definition of resilience to encompass local networks and inter-relationships and to view these as integral to the resilience of a town. Developing resilience thus becomes a local matter about building capacity and diversity. This is readily applicable to towns and retailing.

Fifthly, these tensions and their potential directions of development bring the issue of why intervention occurs in the market. The current system has seen places and people left behind and without access to basic needs and facilities. In many towns, the current system makes things too hard for too many people and increases and perpetuates various inequalities. The widespread dominance of distant firms and businesses (and of that one model of operation) reduces local opportunities and leaves towns at the mercy of decisions taken hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. All this is damaging to health, well-being, and local prosperity. Within this, the fact that policy makes it easier and cheaper to develop away from existing towns and town centres exacerbates the problems. Intervention is required as things are not working, especially to the benefit of many local communities, but also increasingly in terms of broader environmental sustainability.

The practical conclusions from this analysis imply a rethinking of policy to be more radical and more in tune with this revised concept of resilience. This must be not only about supporting activities but of stopping others. It requires national level policy frameworks but implementation at the local and community level. Individual towns are distinct, and those differences and their local needs should be accommodated at the local level, if resilience is to be developed and mean anything. This is important whatever the sources of the issues around the sustainability and resilience of town and city centres.

Conceptually, this paper is aligned with the stronger critiques of the use of the concept of resilience in social science. Resilience needs to be rethought and its underpinnings made explicit. Currently, too many papers on resilience in the urban, town or retail context ignore issues of space and scale, power relations and their consequences, and view protection of the prevailing status quo as inherently of benefit (“return to normal” or “bounce back” post-pandemic are the current manifestations). A conceptualisation is needed that is broader but more locally adaptable and one that recognises that the current system and position of towns and town centres were created within a system geared to do just that, and that consequently, resilience might well be about creating a new, more locally engaged situation. The “death of the high street” narrative in the UK reflects a socially constructed situation, but one that is not inevitable; it can be reversed by rethinking and stating what is important in our social, economic, and cultural identities at the town level.

Leigh Sparks (2021) Towns, High Streets and Resilience in Scotland: A Question for Policy? Sustainability, 13 (10), 5631 DOI:

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Academics, CLES, Community, community wealth building, Covid19, Government, High Streets, Pandemic, Public Policy, Resilience, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Social Renewal, Sustainability, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scotland’s Towns Partnership: A (Covid) Year in Review

Towards the end of each May, thoughts at Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) often turn reflective. As we head towards our Annual Towns Tea Party and our AGM (2nd June), we look back on the year. This year has of course been a year like no other, so that reflection on what we have been doing is all the more vital.

STP works alongside the Scottish Government to create stronger, more sustainable, vibrant communities. STP is the trusted national body for Towns and Improvement Districts, providing a single entity driving partnership, collaboration, progress and innovation across a diverse and complex environment. The Partnership provides expert brokerage between public, private, academia and social sector stakeholders.

A range of resources and services to stakeholders who work to improve and regenerate towns are available and these include resources and toolkits such as:

Understanding Scottish Places (USP), USP Your Town Audit, Town Centre Toolkit, Place Standard, STP Funding Finder, News & Resource Services.

and services such as:

STP learning events, Scotland’s Towns Conference, Funding Consultancy, National Towns Campaigns, Competitions

Details of all of these can be found on the website.

These resources and services remain important, but the last year has been mainly about Covid-19 activity and providing funding support to Scotland’s towns and businesses. Over the year, supported and funded by the Scottish Government, Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Improvement Districts Scotland have supported 357 place-based organisations with Covid-19 resilience and recovery funding. Over £3.6m was allocated across four funding streams:

  • Covid-19 BID Resilience Fund (BRF),
  • Towns and BIDs Resilience and Recovery Fund (TBRRF) (coordinated in two streams, for Towns and BIDs respectively) and,
  • Scotland Loves Local Fund.

Every local authority area in Scotland received funding from at least one of these funds.

The Covid-19 BID Resilience Fund (BRF) was launched in April 2020. During that month, STP asked Local Authorities to pause collection of BID Levies for a minimum period of 6 months. Where a BID agreed a critical response role with Local Government, the BRF resourced this via a £1m COVID-19 BIDS Resilience Fund. The fund encouraged BIDs to deliver emergency support around mitigation of the pandemic locally and encouraged a role to support their council, agencies, levy payers and other businesses, neighbouring districts and towns, local communities, and charities. This funding directly secured at least 81 FTE jobs related to and enabling BIDs to support hundreds of businesses in their district areas.

The Towns and BIDS Resilience and Recovery Fund (TBRRF) towns stream was announced in July 2020 and was intended to support localised response activities contributing to town centre and high street resilience and recovery.  Projects included PPE and public health infrastructure, ‘open for business’ directories, virtual high streets, ‘Love Local’ campaigns and managing public spaces in order to address immediate priorities as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased.  The fund supported 189 towns across Scotland, substantially more than the 108 anticipated.

A separate TBRRF funding stream of £700,000 for Business Improvement Districts was opened for applications in September 2020. This funding facilitated BIDs and surrounding businesses with a range of initiatives to help local economies bounce back from the pandemic, including community resilience measures, e-commerce platforms, and schemes to ensure social distancing and hygiene measures are in place, in line with Scottish Government guidelines.

The Scotland Loves Local Fund was launched in October 2020 to improve and promote local place and communities through capital or revenue grants of between £500 and £5,000. Projects included small scale local improvements, including those contributing locally to net-zero targets and supporting localised responses in town and settlement centres, such as, ‘Love Local’ marketing campaigns, environmental/place improvement, digital trading infrastructure, safe trading facilities, town signage/maps and local marketplace initiatives.  With 193 individual town applications and 35 awards to multi-town partnership projects, the fund supported 261 towns across Scotland.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic a key focus of STP’s communications has been the Scotland Loves Local campaign. This has been led by STP and largely funded by Scottish Government augmented by support from a suite of strategic partners. The campaign is designed to encourage the public to ‘think local first’ and support their high streets safely and in line with public health guidelines. Since its launch the campaign has had huge public impact, coinciding with growing public support for local shops and services.

During the year of course, the Review of the Town Centre Action Plan was also published as “A New Future for Scotland’s Towns”. I was delighted to be asked to Chair it, and again thank all those that were on the Review Group and all those who got involved through whatever mechanism. The hard work of turning the thoughts and recommendations into actions is beginning and will continue over the year. The ambition for our towns should be welcomed and if powerful change is implemented now, then they do have an excellent future. I won’t reflect more on the Review here as it has been covered in in this blog at some length, though I will return to its implementation as it progresses.

It has been some year for Scotland’s towns and for Scotland’s Towns Partnership, as well no doubt for all those involved as partners or others in this critically important place based agenda. Come along (virtually) to the Towns Tea Party and the AGM and let’s celebrate and reflect on what has been achieved in the face of real adversity.

Posted in Bids Scotland, Covid19, High Streets, Local Authorities, Pandemic, Place Standard, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Independent Retailing During and After the Pandemic: Tell your Stories

In my last post one of the statements that garnered quite a lot of attention was

As an example, I am hearing of (and locally seeing) quite a lot of local independent businesses opening up, and a better realism of what the stock of store units should be. Both are positive signals of retail change. Maybe we could speed these processes up by targeted investment and replacement and better and faster support for independent retailers?

My own observations, as well as what others are telling me from various places across the country, suggests that there has been a growth in independents opening in the last wee while.  We also know of many who have, during the pandemic, pivoted to online (often non-food) or seen strong local trade (especially food, some of whom have also gone online).

Around these independents have developed some stronger supply systems from wholesalers and producers whose markets have been hit (again often in food, but perhaps some non-food Brexit effects) and also support and technology systems and apps allowing retailers to collaborate sectorally and locally and to move online rapidly and successfully.

But at the same time we may be missing the detail and other stories, good and less good (some may have closed never to reopen). For example my watching brief of #IndieHour (twitter on Tuesdays at 8pm) saw a recent discussion about the speed or otherwise of the financial support from governments and through local government.  In some cases there was nothing but praise, and in others sheer frustration, if not despair, at the lack of timely support. In one case this varied depending on the side of street the shop was.

In Scotland, the #ScotlandLovesLocal campaign and the support for businesses through BIDS and other town funding sometimes routed through Scotlands Towns Partnership (we have chanelled c£3.6m into business and communities on behalf of the Scottish Government) has been strongly backed by many businesses, local authorities, politicians and media companies.

One of the advantages of the independent sector is its vast scale, but that also means much happens locally or great stories or issues remain hidden. We need to know more about what worked or did not work during the pandemic in terms of support and operations; and we need to know what more could be done as we re-awaken economy, society and the sector (and its support channels).

It is this that Bill Grimsey (of the Grimsey Review, Grimsey Report 2 and Build Back Better) is wanting to uncover for his next report from his team. 

Grimsey (@BillGrimsey) has campaigned for greater government support for small businesses and said there was a dawning realisation that independents have an essential role to play. “Smaller shops and hospitality businesses have been undervalued by government for years … but two things have happened during the pandemic that’s challenged this thinking. Firstly, there’s been a rise in localism with people coming to value smaller, local shops and commuting less. Secondly, many major brands have gone bust and disappeared for good from our high streets leaving huge gaps behind … A few years ago, everywhere wanted a Debenhams but now towns are realising that the clone town model is over. Independent shops and hospitality are key to developing a distinctive identity and unique sense of place.”

Grimsey is thus inviting Independent high street businesses (and wholesalers, trade bodies and others that have interest in the independent sector) to share their pandemic experiences, highlighting the challenges they faced, the action they took and the help (or lack of) and support that they received from local and central government, third sector bodies and their local communities.

Independents (and others) are being invited to email their experiences to

Four questions can help structure any responses (but all responses in any form are welcome). Have you made changes during COVID in any or all of the following ways and how successful have these been and what problems have you faced?

Business Format

How the business gets goods and services to consumers? (e.g. example, have you traditionally just sold goods through physical outlets and now set up online ordering and delivery? Have you set up a click and collect service? Have you closed aspects of the business and opened others?).

Marketing activities

Have you targeted new groups of consumers? Have you changed the range of products and services that you offer? Have you made changes to branding? Added new products/brands? Have you communicated with customers in different ways e.g. developed a social media strategy? Have you changed pricing strategy? Have you made changes to the way goods and services are presented to consumer e.g. re packaging? Have you adopted any new technology? Have you implemented any new systems to deal with customers?


Have you taken on more/less staff? Have you collaborated with other businesses, either formally or informally? Have you changed ownership of all/parts of the business? Have you sold parts of the business? Or acquired new?

External influences

Have you accessed any external funding support during COVID? If so what was it and how useful has it been? What further support would have been useful?

In order a report can be published in June 2021, the closing date for getting in touch with Bill is 24th May.

Independents (and others) are being invited to email their experiences to
Posted in #IndieHour, Bill Grimsey, Collaboration, Community, Convenience, Entrepreneurship, Government, Independents, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Soaring Vacancies” : perhaps or perhaps not?

The end of last week saw headlines about the number of vacant shops in Scotland. Typical Scottish newspaper examples included:

So, something of a downer to end the first week out of lockdown in Scotland and ahead of a bank holiday weekend.

The data were from the British Retail Consortium/Local Data Company survey of “shop” units and so Scotland was but one part of their regular GB study.  I don’t have access to the data (hence why “shop” above is in parentheses as some of the surveys go well beyond retail units) , only the headlines. One of the press releases can be found here, but what was said specifically about Scotland I do not know. Whilst some journalistic licence can be expected, the press release steer is quite clear (though some reporting was much more measured and factual than the newspaper headlines above – see Retail Gazette for example).  Some things about this concern me though (and I am aware this is a lonely but previously ploughed furrow – see here, here and here for a sequence of three pieces in the teeth of the pandemic, but there is also a longer history on this blog).

To quote from the press release “In the first quarter of 2021, the overall GB vacancy rate increased to 14.1%, from 13.7% in Q4 2020. It was 1.9 percentage points higher than in the same point in 2020”.

So in one year the rate rose by 1.9%. In the last quarter it rose by 0.4%. So the rate of increase probably slowed in the last quarter. “Soaring”?

First though a quick recap for those who have not been paying much attention.  Since March 2020 we have been living through a global pandemic.  During that pandemic in the UK there have been three long and deep lockdowns; lockdowns where many shops and other operators such as cafes, bars, pubs, restaurants, B&Bs and hotels were forced by law to shut.  Many workers have been on furlough or have lost their jobs. Consumer spending has altered and been markedly curtailed.  What spending there has been has often been directed through online channels, which have reached unprecedented sales and penetration rates.

And yet in Scotland (and elsewhere) according to the reporting of the BRC/LDC survey, shop vacancies are not as high as after the financial crash of 2008-9.  That’s right, they are lower (the newspapers report they are at a “six-year high”).  Yes they are increasing, especially in shopping centres, but they are not (yet) ‘soaring’ and are not at record highs.  All this in a longer period of sectoral structural change as well.

This position is testimony to tremendous work by, and resilience of, many, in the face of an unheard of set of problems.  Government support, the retailers themselves, rapid changes to business, rates relief, landlords foregoing rents, consumers supporting local stores where they can …. and so on. 

The vacancy rate rose by less than 2% in the teeth of a global pandemic and enforced lockdowns. I find the figure a remarkable, if a little surprising, testimony to people trying their best, and surviving.

Vacancy rates on their own are of course a very blunt and uninformative tool (as we wrote over a decade ago now).  We need the base data (so this commentary is not about collecting vacancy data, which is valuable) but there are so many more informative things we can say about places using it and the types of measures we should have.  We can consider sectoral issues, diversity, churn, persistent vacancy, YoY and LfL change, stock (shop unit) shifts and other measures. But these of course do not make a good newspaper headline.

We (retailers, consumers, landlords) are facing a period of huge change and the re-awakening is going to take time. I doubt it will be smooth.  I would not be suprised if some things do get worse before they get better, and we may indeed reach “record high headlines” (the potential reimposition of business rates will be a major issue for example, as will rent recovery). But then again, we might not, and there are some hopes for the re-awakening/recovery/re-opening.

As an example, I am hearing of (and locally seeing) quite a lot of local independent businesses opening up, and a better realism of what the stock of store units should be.  Both are positive signals of retail change.  Maybe we could speed these processes up by targeted investment and replacement and better and faster support for independent retailers?

More than anything perhaps we should focus more on talking up the sector and what it has achieved, especially during the last 15 months or so, and give consumers confidence about their shopping and the retailers they can now access. Constantly saying how bad places are is not going to speed the re-awakening or make it sustainble.

Posted in BRC, Consumers, Covid19, Data, Independents, Local Data Company, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Places, Rates, Rents, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Shopping, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment