Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Why Labour is wrong (apart from on VAT) about 'saving the high street'

The Labour Party is setting out to “Save our High Street”. And it has a four-point plan to do so. Now one of the points – cutting VAT would make a difference (nothing like a price cut to stimulate spending). The rest are eyewash, anti-competitive or downright stupid.

Introduce a retail diversity planning clause, putting communities in charge of the future of their local high streets. Local people and local retailers would have a say on any retail plans for their area, giving them the power to put the heart back into the high street.

This is about stopping the further development of those dreadful supermarkets (although Labour should bear in mind that, for most supermarket developments, public opinion is pretty evenly split). However, it also hands to businesses the opportunity to prevent competition. This rather reminds me of the retired shopkeeper who once told me that “they shouldn’t allow” two shops selling a similar range in a high street. And it certainly reminds me of the way in which the National Market Traders Federation has browbeaten markets operators to do just that.

Create a ‘competition test’ in the planning system, leading to greater choice and lower prices for shoppers. The test would ensure a level playing field between small and large shops.

No I haven’t any idea what this means – except that it doesn’t seem to mean more competition or for competition to be effective. Translated it appears to mean – again – saying no to supermarkets. Now this might be a good thing – I have some sympathy with those who dislike supermarkets – but it will not lead to “greater choice and lower prices for shoppers”.

The problem with these proposals is that they are – as is too often the case – intended more to get the right headline than to look at what might be done to “save” the high street. There is no analysis, no appraisal of the retail markets just banal (and dangerous – putting retailers ‘in charge’ of retail planning, that’s a great idea) comments.

The problem with ‘our’ high streets is that:

  1. People like to take their car to go shopping – it’s convenient with those heavy bags – and town centres have hard to access parking that costs too much.  Out-of-town retailing has ample, surface car parking that’s usually free. Unless Labour are planning to ban cars (or maybe just car parking) this will not change – people will continue to prefer out-of-town to the high street
  2. Even lazier folk have discovered the Internet and on-line shopping! Without leaving the cosy comfort of my house I can purchase – and have delivered to my door – all the good things I want.  Good things that, in times past, I had to go to the high street to buy. Whatever you do with the planning system – short of banning home delivery or shutting of the Internet – the growth in on-line retail isn’t going to stop
 It really is as simple as this – yet Councils and their planners continue to make it ever harder for people to get their cars into town centres. And this means those people choose differently – they don’t do what the planners want and hop on the bus, they take the car to Bluewater, Lakeside, Trafford Park or Meadowhall.

If you want to ‘save the high street’, you have to start with what it’s for – is it the place we go for everyday shopping or is it a destination for leisure and pleasure? It seems to me that the days of the high street as a place for convenience shopping were numbers when, in 1968, planners in Sussex allowed Tesco to build their first out-of-town supermarket in Crawley. And once the principle was established in one place, for one set of goods the genie was out and away – out-of-town shopping had won. We should accept this reality.

But surely town centres will be kept going by all those workers who trail in and out of town every day? Partly, yes but only partly - next time you’re on the edge of town look at the tenants moving onto business parks. Where once there were just low added value operations – call centres, back office paperwork farms and warehousing – now we see front of house functions, lawyers, accountants and others who once dominated the commercial sector in town. The convenience of free parking combined with lower rents (and other benefits such as staff safety) sees business moving out from town centres into these out-of-town locations.

So what to do with the town centre? The answer lies with leisure – with the fact that we need a location to play out our celebrations, that we like to wander and admire nice buildings, that we enjoy culture – theatre, galleries, museums, and that we enjoy down time in a pleasant place. When Will Alsop published his Bradford masterplan with its park, with a lake and with an anti-development theme, people scoffed, called it madness. And tried then to turn it into a traditional, development-led masterplan founded on property values.

Looking back, I have come to the view that Alsop was right – Bradford needed less development to make it succeed not more development. We did need to clear out the horrible 1960s buildings that stood in homage to the failures of the City’s past dreams. We did need a park – including, if you will, a great lake. What we didn’t need was a soul-less commercial approach to the problem. We needed to make Bradford a destination.

And that is what we should be doing with town centres – giving people a good reason to go there rather than trying to stop us having the convenience of shopping out-of-town. The Labour proposals are pretty thin – rather than creating places people want to visit, they want to prevent development, stifle change and reduce competition. All for the sake of a cheap and easy headline.

Our high streets deserve better than this, they deserve some real thought based on a fuller understand of the social changes that drive the decline of in-town retailing rather than the sad, sourness of “we hate supermarkets”.



Curmudgeon said...

Absolutely spot on there. Yet so many Labour and LibDem (and even Tory) councils still fail to grasp the point that limited and expensive parking is one of the key reasons for the decline of the traditional high street.

I've argued myself in the past that the future of town centres lies primarily with entertainment, leisure and specialist retail, and everyday shopping is increasingly going to migrate away.

So in a sense a policy of managed reduction of retail space is needed. Many of today's empty shops will probably never trade again even at the height of an economic boom.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Couldn't agree more.

In my local town the council have:

- raised all the car parking charges
- closed one large car park completely
- pedestrianised the High Street
- lowered the speed limit on all the approach roads
- installed loads of speed bumps
- installed loads more traffic lights at minor junctions
- closed all the public toilets
- closed the two theatres
- demolished the ice rink

and there's probably more that I can't think of just now.

And guess what (1) - the High Street is full of empty shops, charity shops, pound shops, and short-term tat generally and also guess what (2) the same council is wringing its hands wondering how it can save the High Street.

It's a cliche, but you couldn't make it up.