Monday, 21 July 2008

Conservative Small Shops Commission

I probably should have read the interim report of the Commission into small shops in the High Street which was set up by the Conservative Parliamentary Enterprise Group and whose final report was published this month (July 2008). I probably should have read it so that I could comment before the final version was published, but sadly I was not on their circulation list.

Having now read the final version I think that it is worth my while commenting upon it from the perspective of an SME retailer. In general terms this document is welcomed; it certainly is a positive contribution to the discourse about our town centres and the problems relating to the smaller businesses and has a number of interesting ideas that will inform the on-going debate.

There are some criticisms that I would level at it, the first being that the recommendations which it makes to the next Conservative government are written in such a manner that the government in question, should it be elected, would be able to adopt just a few select 'options' from the list and be able to claim that they have followed the recommendations of the Commission. This being the case, then the non-MP representatives on the Commission might feel that they have not achieved all that they set out to do. But, let us be positive because all retailers have to be optimists and let us look at some of the detail - especially the details that on first reading might be seen as not very well thought through.

The Chair of the Commission, Brian Binley, MP, in his introduction speaks about some of the factors that have brought about a dislocation in our town centres such as the introduction of inner ring roads, often constructed to aid access to in-town shopping centres. It is difficult to disagree with this as a stated fact; that this disadvantaged smaller retailers is contained in the reality that High Street rentals whilst not reaching the dizzying heights of the past few years have always been regarded as 'premium'. These premium rates were very often not seriously undermined when the 'High Street' moved in to a purpose built Mall, the original 'High Street' location usually retained a legacy premium rent and, in consequence, business rate. This all served to ensure that the SME retailers was traditionally contained in the more major town centres to the periphery of the core shopping area and in secondary or tertiary streets.

The position of these shops was good enough since they were able to establish themselves and their credibility with their chosen customer group and to build. The arrival of the inner ring road, however, more often than not, cut a swathe through these 'less important' streets and this was very often because a paper exercise by the planners showed this to be the most efficient. Hopefully the current generation of planners entertain more holistic thinking about their towns and are able to understand that roads act both as connectors and dividers. The smaller businesses thus cut off from the new core area have so very often been allowed to decline with minimal external investment. This paper offers no hope for the areas in this position whose final demise has not yet been reached.

Strangely the paper speaks eloquently of the need for markets; I have just this week been visiting the thriving markets in the towns around South Yorkshire. Here the markets co-exist with shops, indeed many stallholders are also shopkeepers, and the public are keen market shoppers - this is especially true in times of downturn. The situation in the South is, however, quite different. The tradition of the market has been steadily eroded and the 'charter' markets have been sanitized and repositioned to support the most recent town improvements. In his book 'The Captive State', George Monbiot in chapter three, wrote about the plight of the St Mary's area of Southampton; an area that had been, like all retail areas, passing through phases of success and decline. This particular ancient area had from the Victorian period been a major base for those victualling the ships in dock as well as providing a local shopping area for a densely populated part of the town. In the 1970s the planners were concerned that the town had stagnated since the rebuilding of the town after the serious war damage. They put in a series of dual-carriageways to serve the 'core' and although the St Mary's area was no more than half a mile from the High Street it was effectively cut off by busy roads which had the appearance to many of being impermable barriers. They lost their ancient market and a significant number of shops. The response by the planning authority was to redesignate St Marys Street as only partly retail and to allow a large number of new residential properties on the street level. This authority has now, following a more major shift in the town centre with the opening of a major shopping centre and surrounding retail park, brought in a new market, on the pedestrianised High Street adjacent to the entrances to the new centre, and these cut into the established trade of the few remaining SME traders to the east of the High Street that have clung on to life in the new 'core'.

So, there are good reasons why I would say that markets are really good, when they are planned and properly operated and where they are not seen to cream off the sales of less mobile traders whose investment is firmly attached to their street. This does not come through in this paper.

The paper also deals with other issues such as transportation, charity shops and a whole range of other important matters, many of which I would agree with the Commission, and which like them I believe needs further work to reach a fair and equitable solution. This is key to all things with SMEs, they need fair access and fair treatment. They, of course, also need to do their job properly and not to complain that their business is suffering when the problem is self-inflicted. I am conscious that this blog is getting a bit long-winded, but I want to mention a few other points from the paper before leaving it.

There are a number of points put forward that I am convinced are a mistake. The proposal to change coffee shops from A3 to A1 may make sense if the beneficiaries were going to be nice little local internet cafes such as appears to be the thinking behind this one, but actually it will be a licence to the major coffee chains to get set up with fewer restrictions than currently obtain. I have no problems with Starbucks, or Costa, or Nero or any other fascias, but if the intention of this proposal is to encourage local enterprise - then it will fail.

The paper refers quite a number of times to the retention of the needs test in PPS6, I would reiterate my previous blog on the subject and say clearly that there is a need for local control and for ensuring a balance in the towns of the retail mix available, but the need test, even just applied to edge or out of town sites is not as pragmatic an approach as a full impact assessment - and providing that the SME retailer is properly represented in that assessment process, then the needs test is no longer viable.

It is crucial before the development of any new initiative, such as the Community Hub Enterprise areas' that the local population actually decides what the role is that they expect of their town centre. Even major town centres often play multiple roles, such as being the regional shopping centre as well as the local district shopping centre. This becomes increasingly true as greater numbers of people move into new residential areas immediately adjacent to or actually within trading areas. The amount of public space out of trading hours, for instance, is dramatically reduced in a regional shopping centre scheme than would otherwise be the case in a local shopping scheme.

I could go on, but I am in danger of giving the impression that I do not like this paper - and that's not true because I do, and I think it deserves wide recognition. But I see it as a point along the journey rather than the destination.

No comments: