Friday, 27 February 2009

Rates Supplement Bill

This blog tries to avoid being partisan political but there are rimes when it is difficult to understand the machinations of a government whose meanderings seem confused and ill considered. The most consistently ill-considered has been the policies relating to transport.

Transport policies that have been considered include the Cross Rail project which is intended to link to far west of Greater London with the far east, taking in the centre along the way. It will serve, should the bill be passed a heavily congested and populated area - but then it will also be an area that has a huge amount of, albeit disjointed in parts, transport infrastructure already in place. Were we not treated in the west to years of building with the Heathrow extensions to the tube services? Did the Docklands Light Rail not do great things linking the east end and the developing docklands to the centre and the underground network? But what about those other schemes whoch were proposed that never saw the light of day because the government policies of the day ruled them out?

In south Greater London there was a scheme that would have linked Croydon to Greenwich, to complement the Croydon Tramlink scheme which links Croydon with Wimbledon in the west and Beckenham to the north east of the borough. This scheme's real merit was that it was to offset the historically problematical transport geography in the capital which can be likened to the spokes on a bicycle wheel - their were plenty of routes providing you were travelling to the central hub. Try going around the wheel east or west north or south if you happened to be in an outer London Borough (where a huge amount of the commuting population actually live) and you'd be stuck. Consequently the hub gets congested because of the throughput of people trying to get elsewhere, alongside those whose destination happens to be the hub. No, that scheme was dropped along the way.

How about South Hampshire? There the scheme was actually winning the argument for integrated transport - even with the government. The scheme which would have joined rail, road and passenger ferry services, was proposed in a number of stages; the first was to link Portsdmouth city centre and the towns of Fareham and Gosport just across the harbour. This stage was important for two reasons - the economic future of the two smaller towns was certainly in doubt given that they are set, as are so many central southern coastal towns, on a peninsular with the limitations of road access that peninsulars always provide - in this case with the A27 and M27 running east west at the top of the peninsular and the A32 running down its length. These roads, along with the minor roads, are frequently congested and the movement of goods and people is a significant problem.

The second stage was to have provided a link to Waterlooville, a dormitory town just up towards the downs and also this stage would have linked Fareham to Southampton central. This last named city, like the town of Gosport, is on a penisular - I forgot to mention that Portsmouth has it even worse because it is actually an island (the Island of Portsea). These towns and cities are an economic powerhouse for the south (that is the south outside of London) and the congestion in the area is frequently the subject of radio traffic reports.

The third stage would have linked Southampton with Totton and the waterside towns on the western side of the Southampton water adjacent to the New Forest - another important trade route (Oil refinery and dockside works), commuter towns for Southampton and beyond and the holiday traffic would all have benefitted from its completion.

So why was it that the scheme was scratched - because of a lack of evidence of the social and economic benefits to these communities? The South Hampshire Rapid Transit system would have provided a relief and the only viable alternative to road transport in the region linking these places. No, the decision was taken by the then Deputy Prime Minister to scrap it on the basis of cost! Not an altogether unreasonable position one might think, except that there had been strong government support at all levels for a great deal of time and the project team were well advanced - but then it happened. This same government's integrated transport policy was shattered by another conflicting government policy - one must presume that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence never actually spoke to each other - the Navy decided that it was to make Portsmouth its home port for their aircraft carriers. The greater draught required by these huge vessels meant that the tunnel under the harbour would need to be deeper and therefore incur far greater costs.

So it was a government decision that adversely affected the costs of the proposed project upon which they based their opinion that the costs were too great. At the time the costs for the project would have equated to about 4 miles of new motorway construction. Is this not perverse?

For the retailers in Fareham, Gosport and Portsmouth they must now face a far more uncertain future and with this new bill before Parliament they will have the double whammy of seeing London, once more, becoming the beneficiary of taxpayers money for which the only possible and frankly dubious benefit will be the London Olympic games of 2012, and they for their part being saddled with the possiblility of further rates charges being sneeked in on the back of Cross Rail. They wonder why people do not trust them anymore?

Lapping up after Woolworths

The Retail Week has a piece by Nicola Harrison about how specialist toy retailers, having had a torrid time of it during the closing down sale when Woolworths were selling toys at or below cost price, are now reaping the benefits of their closure.

This blog discussed the probability of this happening and urged smaller businesses in close proximity to Woolworth sites to maximise their potential for generating new business; I wonder how many have done so - clearly from Nicola Harrison's article the toy group The Entertainer have capitalised, but then they have a higher profile as do Hawkin's Bazaar, who are also mentioned.

I know that within the toy retail sector there have remained a core of SME businesses around the country who now stand to gain local market share - but have they? If anyone reading this has any evidence then please post a comment. If they have not then the question must be asked why?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Conflicting pressures - potential for problems

There was an interesting piece by Mike Dennis in 'Talking Retail' just over a month ago (16 Jan) where he looks at the potential for opportunity for SMEs amidst the chaos of the growing number of closures and administration orders in the High Street.

I have noted a similar potential for SMEs and added that it is crucial for SMEs to remain focussed on the markets that they know and understand, provided that such a market is to continue in existence - changing shopping habits because of on-line provision, changing technologies, cultural and demographic changes can all substantially undermine previously solid markets. It is right nonetheless that SMEs look to the gaps being left in the market by defunct or retreating businesses with the purpose of exploiting these opportunities.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the credit crunch is having further unexpected impacts upon the trading environment of SME retailers and the threat appears to be coming from the Town Halls. There have been a number of reports in the press recently of local campaigns by small businesses - especially in market towns - against the introduction of parking charges where previously there were none, and raising the charges beyond the rate of inflation where charges already existed.

I believe that these measures are being adopted by local councils simply because it is easy to do and has a marginal effect of voter intentions; I believe also that it is foolish to introduce these kinds of charge changes without substantial and meaningful discussions with the local businesses. In an e-mail conversation that I had recently with an academic we had reason to discuss the interaction between local authorities and SME retailers and he emphasised the difficulties that exist in finding a mouthpiece for these smaller businesses. I did understand, and indeed have discussed this problem previously on this blog - but these logistical difficulties cannot be an excuse for not engaging with small businesses, especially where the impact of decisions has an impact on their businesses and their investments.

The period of recession will not last forever and the local High Streets will be sadder places if not only have they lost their Woolworths and their M&S food offer but that their independent businesses were also lost in an attempt by local authorities to balance the books.