Monday, 10 December 2012

Punishing shopping centres won't save the high street

Skipton Market - my kind of shopping but not to everyone's taste
I like Julian Dobson’s stuff; he talks sense about the challenges facing town centres (although his prescriptions and solutions seek to put a finger in the dyke of consumer behaviour rather than try to direct its flow). But sometimes his heart is too firmly on his sleeve and he loses the grip on common sense.

So it is with his reaction to the claim from the British Council of Shopping Centre that their collections of emporia are at “the heart of the community”. Rather than considering that this signals worry rather than arrogance, Julian launches into his “I hate shopping centres” mode and proposes a nonsensical set of ideas for those shopping centres to “prove” their central location in “the community”.

Let’s look at them:

“...every shopping centre operator should sign a public Community Reinvestment Pledge...”

Why just the shopping centre Julian? Why not the artisan baker, the trendy clothes boutique and the ‘independent’ coffee shop? How are they any different and shouldn’t they be making this same pledge? Truth is, of course, it’s just another cost to the business – means higher rents and these mean higher prices. But I guess Julian doesn’t about that as he’s not on a budget.

“...ask their tenants to pay staff a living wage: one that gives people enough to live on, not a minimum wage.”

Sounds great doesn’t it! And the same applies – those retailers not in the shopping centre should also pledge to pay a living wage surely? Again though – although doubtless Julian will be swiftly on with talking nonsense about the regional multiplier – the main effect is to increase costs (wages are one of the two big retail costs and the other, rent has been put up by the “Community Reinvestment Pledge”). And higher costs mean higher prices. Great idea!

“...they should dedicate a portion of every centre to community or civic space.”

Another impost that means higher rents – it all sounds great but why should a commercial venture do this? Out in Julian’s beloved high street, they aren’t clambering all over each other to give away space to ‘community or civic’ uses. They’re quite rightly looking for paying tenants and, if the Council wants a library or the community group a meeting space they can pay the rent just like everyone else does.

Right now it’s a pretty tough time for high street retailers – the country’s economic problems and the rapid growth in e-commerce and m-commerce make it ever more difficult for traditional retail models to succeed. Dreaming up passive aggressive pseudo taxes for shopping centres – punishing them for being “bad” – is a recipe for more closures, more job losses, more business failure and more empty parades with the occasional crisp packet or flyer doing a passable impression of tumbleweed.

What annoys me most about this anti-retail (or rather anti-certain kinds of retail that we disapprove of for no obvious reason other than that they are national businesses) approach is that it will do nothing to change the decline of high streets or the loss of independent shops. There is a rather patronising, middle-class, guardian-reading pomposity about the “save the high street” rhetoric. It reminds me of folk who criticise McDonalds while tucking into their £20 of hand-formed, lamb burger in some trendy gastropub. It’s not the bad diet but a sniffy, “that’s a bit common” attitude – and hating shopping malls is much the same.

I don’t like those malls but that’s my preference so I seek out other places. Yet millions of people do like shopping malls, visit them often and get real pleasure from shopping in those dreadful national chains. I know this because that’s precisely what millions of people do every weekend. Who am I – or Julian – to criticise that choice, to say that our preference for trendy shops in windy alleys is better that shiny shops in glittering malls?

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