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Adapt or DIE
November 30, 2015
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Adapt or Die

Adapt or Die that’s the overriding message for UK High Streets from Bill Grimsey and I greatly enjoyed listening to him talk about this at a Cardiff School of Planning and Geography seminar in November 2014.

There can be no doubt about Bill’s retail credentials as he spent 45 years at the forefront of the sector including roles with Hong Kong’s leading supermarket chain – PacknShop, Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY.

Bill is no stranger to controversy having been critical of the former Coalition Governments attempts to address ailing High Streets by the use of TV personalities such as Mary Portas. In 2013 Bill underlined this message in the “Grimsey Review an Alternative Future for the High Street” which built on the themes of his earlier book “Sold Out – What Killed the High Street”?

I must admit I have started to question whether the Regeneration Sector is becoming slightly obsessed about the plight of the High Street. Many of our Cities and Towns have endured centuries of change in the face of numerous economic recessions, war time destruction, fire, flood, famine so why should they now require specific help from Government?

Well perhaps a partial answer to this question is the overall importance of the retail sector to the UK economy which in 2014 comprised over 95,000 companies with a net worth of £135 billion.

During his talk Bill outlined ten things the Government could do immediately to help the High Street:

  1. Recognise that town centres and high streets can no longer thrive as a retail destination alone.
  2. Reform business rates now and look at taking as many small businesses as possible out of the rating system.
  3. Promote the concept of community hubs.
  4. Establish a Town Centre Commission.
  5. Inject some urgency to reforming parking guidance.
  6. Freeze car-parking charges.
  7. Seek a massive increase in the number of Business Improvement Districts.
  8. Promote the concept of a “wired town” or “networked high street”.
  9. Introduce a regional factor for business rates to address the changes in valuations to compensate for the delay in revaluations to 2017.
  10. Enable the change of use planning process to convert entire streets to residential and repopulate town centres.

I can’t say I disagree with any of these suggestions but if they were all introduced tomorrow would they really make a difference and be the saviour of our High Streets?

Despite the hue and cry from Government and Regeneration specialists consumers have continued to vote with their wallets in favour of large Regional Shopping centres, Out of Town Retail Parks and the continued growth of the Internet Shopping (it was estimated that 37% of John Lewis 2014 Xmas sales were purchased on line).

We have now entered the world of digital shopping as evidenced by Displaydata whose work indicates that 76% of consumers now research online before visiting a store and by doing so perceive a growing disparity between their physical and online shopping experiences.

So if High Streets are to compete there is a clear need for retailers to bridge the gap between digital and physical shopping experiences. Over 40% of shoppers consider retailers offer better prices on line, consider sales staff to be poorly informed and point to a lack of stock availability as a key disappointment when shopping in-store.

Much is also being said about the transformation of towns into community hubs and the re-population of the High Street by the conversion of shops into residential units.

In theory this is fine but until the current fragmented ownership of High Streets is addressed is it really practical to bring about change on any meaningful scale. Who is going to take the role in assembling the properties for re-development and will they have access to CPO Powers to persuade intransigent and remote owners to come to the table and participate in the overall process of change?

What seems to be missing from the current debate is the acceptance that although employment is increasing the majority of UK shoppers have less disposable income and when spending are more discerning about their purchases.

So until disposable income increases and people feel more secure about their jobs and the economy is it realistic to assume that there can be any revival of our High Streets?

After listening to Grimsey perhaps my overriding view is that if we wish to see the revival of our Towns and High Streets should regeneration specialists concentrate their efforts in building more robust local economies which offer long term sustainable jobs with decent salaries.

Would this not be a better use of time and skill than attempting to turn back the tide in favour of our High Streets that are increasingly at the mercy of international consumer and market forces which are likely to be unstoppable no matter how well intentioned our actions may be?