Thursday, 27 August 2009

Local Retail Trades Associations

This week there was an attempt by a local politician in a southern coastal city to try and drum up support for the formation of a local traders association formed from amongst the SME retailers in the area. Why would this be sufficient reason for me to comment? Simple! It was of immense importance and serves to highlight a problem which, if not resolved, will continue to hamper the effective promotion of vitality in our town centres and will mean that Government (both local and national) will continue to fail in the delivery of well meant ideas and strategies.
In itself the meeting was not a particularly spectacular event; low key and poorly attended – in short quite typical for the type of meeting that was being envisaged by its sponsor, a local ward councillor. I know this particular councillor and fully recognise that she is personally committed to the regeneration of the subject area which is the rump of what has been, economically and socially, an enormously important part of the historic city of which it forms a part. The irony is that the prime reason for the dereliction of the area has been because of the planning decisions made by previous generations of councillors, all of whom one supposes were acting in what they regarded as the best interests of the area and of the wider city centre. What is equally clear though is that the very people upon whom the long-term down-sides would fall were not consulted effectively and decisions were made that have undoubtedly blighted the area and paved the way for it to be ‘zoned out’ of the city centre permanently with the attendant drop in local authority expenditure that accompanies that status.

Let us cut to the chase; there is a pressing need for effective communications between planners, decision makers, service providers and all stakeholders representing one part of the community or another. This blog is concentrating on the SME retailer community, if community is aptly applied to this diverse and often disharmonious group. I am not intending to relate the importance of SME retailers to the local economy here, because those arguments have been well rehearsed elsewhere, on this blog site and far beyond. Let us, for the purposes of this note assume their importance. Let us also ask the question about how they are communicated with? They ought to be able to communicate with representative groups – retail trades associations; but they mostly are unable to because they do not exist, or are not active.

Over the years I have frequently heard local authority officers expressing real unfeigned exasperation when attempting to gather real feedback from local businesses about things that were very likely to affect them. I have also known when that exasperation became too much to bear and they simply chose one of two options – they simply did not consult, or they ‘consulted’ with a self-elected person who was neither representative of, nor even aware of the opinions of the neighbouring businesses. I can sympathise with the officers, who having fixed time frames for reporting back to members choose the line of least resistance – the social infrastructures rarely exist in towns for these small, often micro-businesses, to be part of an effective group; they cost in terms of money or of time, or perhaps of both – and whereas there is often a willing horse to carry the immediate burden that comes with trying to disseminate information to these diverse and geographically well spread businesses, that horse will become jaded and less willing when the inevitable happens and the other traders begin the process of shooting the messenger when bad news is disseminated. Changes of bus routes, closure of roads, planning issues and a whole myriad of details that the local authority are responsible for and which will have an impact upon those small businesses.

There are, I know, many organisations who claim to be representative of SME retailers, the problem is that they are usually unable or unwilling to be useful at a local level. There are still many local retail trades associations covering discrete geographic areas, however, these tend to be under-funded and reliant therefore on the goodwill of otherwise busy activist members who invest a great deal of time and resource into ensuring that the area is well served. Where these exist, they can be very good, but they are sporadic, very often they are limited simply because of the time constraints of the activists and the breadth of their knowledge of the workings of the local authorities, of place marketing, of town centre management or of other serious matters that are outside of the normal scope of activities that it would be reasonable of an ordinary shopkeeper.

There are then those organisations that exist to support retailers of which I have counted, so far, over seventy. Of these there are several that claim to be both representative and the most effective. The question is, effective at what. Analysing my list I find that most fall into a small number of categories – those that represent retailers at national level, such as the British retail Consortium, but with a membership fee of over £3000 and with most of the major retailers playing significant roles in the management and strategic directing of the organisation they are very unlikely ever to really be truly representative of the SME sector. There are those who are at the national level representing specific sectors of retailing such as the Toy Retailers Association or the British Shops and Stores Association (recently merged with the British Hardware Federation) or the Association of Convenience Stores; then there are those who represent a smaller geographic (but still wide area) but who are also sector specific such as the Scottish Grocers Association or the very lively Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. There are those organisations who are not even retail specific, and do not have a retail specific sub-group within their structures, the Federation for Small Business and the Forum for Private Business are two well known examples. This is not to say that they do not carry out very worthwhile work which SME retailers will benefit from, but they won’t help with the local marketing, or the Christmas lights. Unfortunately, local Chambers of Commerce also have too broad a brief in representing their members and this can often lead to conflicts of interest. Many retailers join organisations for specific benefits – for maintaining their knowledge base in their specialist skill area; for obtaining specific and advantageous terms in banking, legal aid or insurance; for keeping up to date with industry trends and developments and for finding new sources of supply. Local trade associations probably would not be any use in providing any of these things, but they would have advantage in having local knowledge, in having a mutual interest in promoting the area and improving its facilities, there would be advantage in many eyes and ears monitoring local events, including planning applications; there is certainly advantage in having a representative voice that acts as a focal point for the local authority and other organisations that impact upon the traders’ area.

Recent Governmental strategies that are intended to make the country work more effectively and to make local communities more responsive and therefore encourage people to take ownership of their area have highlighted a real need to have effective lines of communication open to these small businesses. How, I ask, will the ambitions in the Leitch report ever be realised if SME retailers (and other small businesses) are not fully on board with the idea of training and up-skilling the people who work within the industry? How will local authorities ever achieve what is now their legal responsibility under section 5 of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 in consulting with representative groups, if when it comes to matters affecting retail trading areas the SME retailers are not ‘grouped’ together. I believe that there is good reason to believe that local authorities should fund local traders associations in the same way that many fund local residents associations. The costs will be small but the returns ought to be immense – democracy amongst the retailers with the costs of communications covered by the LA. The idea of retailers groups ought to be fundamental to any regeneration or renaissance scheme involving retail development, make them compulsory. It’s just an idea, but one which needs to be explored and costed effectively.

Let’s hear from the Councils, what do they think?