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Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Napoleon jeered at us for being “a nation of shopkeepers” before being trounced by Wellington during three days of ruthless engagement at the Battle of Waterloo. This lead the Emperor in no doubt that, when challenged, Great Britain’s ‘shopkeepers’ could deliver surprises.

The same is true today. The economy is broadly based, but ‘shopkeepers’ remain the hub of the average town, so the decline in annual retail sales volumes from a high of 6-7% to less than 1.5% is forcing the industry to reinvent itself.

Reduced consumer confidence is blamed for the loss or shrinkage of some of the biggest names in the sector, as well as rising costs, the minimum wage and high business rates burden. The slow housing market is another factor, affecting furniture and carpet sales.

It is clear that Toys R Us and Mothercare had lost the plot, yet they pursued expansion. They continued to open stores despite declining sales, no doubt as key ‘anchor tenants’ of new retail centres. The same is true of House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer, which are now reducing their property portfolios. And it is the High Street which is suffering most; losing iconic anchor stores like M&S is a killer blow for some locations. Bank closures at a reported 60 each week, leaving many smaller towns and villages without even a cash machine, as well as high parking charges which contribute to low footfall and declining inward investment from both visitors and new businesses.

But, this is nothing new. Problems with the High Street go back more than a decade, with the loss of 15,000 High Street stores between 2000 and 2009 when The British Retail Consortium (BRC) launched a campaign (21st Century High Streets: a new vision for our town centres) to promote better occupancy in ‘pleasant, safe and accessible high streets’. It warned of a potential further 10,000 closures and burgeoning online threats. This identified opportunities for retailers to work with local authorities, Business Improvement Districts, and other stakeholders to address difficulties, including with planning and regulation, as well as reducing costs.

It identified six key policy issues to be addressed:

  1. A unique sense of place
  2. An attractive public realm
  3. Planning for success
  4. Accessibility
  5. Safety and Security
  6. Supportive regulatory and fiscal regimes

A further BRC report in 2012 (21st Century High Streets: What next for Britain’s town centres?) reviewed progress, whilst also reiterating the growing threat from online sales and emphasising the need for evolution to provide consumers with ‘a unique experience, with the right retail mix and good reasons to spend time and money’.

This report published a range of case studies, illustrating how the different issues previously identified were addressed successfully in different areas: regenerating and rebranding run down areas of Belfast and Falmouth, transforming London’s Leicester Square with new landscaping and lighting, urban renewal in Leeds, action on parking and accessibility in Chester, a safe zone in Falkirk, Croydon’s business grants scheme, and Holyhead’s empty shops initiative.

To coin an overused phrase, these case studies represented ‘lessons to be learnt’ elsewhere across the country.

However, in its conclusions the report noted:

“There is no escaping the fact that Britain’s High Streets will continue to be impacted by the growth of multi-channel, out of town and regional centres over the long term…

In many locations retail is only part of the answer for High Street viability, and needs to be complemented by a range of leisure and cultural activities. The challenges are structural not cyclical and policy makers must not assume a return to previous economic models. High Streets are going through a period of profound change.. but the fundamentals remain unchanged. High Streets need to be effectively managed, carefully planned and have a clear vision for future development.

Local authorities in partnership with local retailers, other businesses and residents need to work together to ensure High Streets remain at the centre of our communities. Central government has a vital role in providing the right cost, planning and regulatory framework.”

Isn’t it time to see better implementation of these recommendations from an organisation which actually represents the industry? To survive and thrive, there is a growing recognition that a vibrant High Street contributes to a buoyant local economy. However, any business must focus on good customer service and value for money, giving consumers an experience to bring them back and encourage them to spread the word to neighbours and friends. Variety is the name of the game, which means attracting entrepreneurs with fresh ideas.

Casual dining should bring an added bonus to High Streets, but it is also adversely affected by changing habits – hardly surprising in light of the Sunday Times’s Restaurant Critic’s recent amusing, but damning, critique of some of the ‘big chains’ to be found on retail parks and in town centres. Their downfall is their own fault, she says ‘caused by rapid and greedy expansion… they care only about footfall, dismissing and patronising their customer base’. Ouch!

Cardboardy pizzas, leaden meatballs, and soggy pasta, mass produced in off site kitchens, are just a few offerings failing to impress when compared with affordable independents. Her message? Create a model of killer design, cocktails and service with (of course) good food.

At a time when councils (like Labour-run Ipswich Borough, which is increasing its borrowing from £50m to £350m) are acquiring commercial property, including retail, decimation of the High Street is especially worrying. Boarded up shops aren’t much of an advertisement for the promised financial return.

Reviving town centres and increasing footfall means more quality residential accommodation, meeting demand from downsizers who want to be close to a range of activities and services. GP and dental surgeries, which are usually crammed into outdated accommodation away from the centre, could relocate to empty retail units, sharing back office to reduce costs. Libraries could share with coffee shops, and museums could also take over larger units to display items which are otherwise left to rot in storage. Landscaped seating areas with trees (Sheffield, take note) and making theatres and cinemas more accessible with cheaper car parking keeps people in town for longer and wanting to come back. Good lighting and cleanliness are essential, as well as prominent CCTV to enhance safety.

I’ve long been a fan of York Square, off London’s Kings Road. It has transformed from the former York Barracks to a fantastic multi-faceted area with a range of shops, both individual and chain operators (including Zara), with restaurants and cafes, residential and office accommodation, and a weekend market offering specialist stalls, as well as hosting regular events. With the Saatchi Gallery as its major attraction, York Square is a destination ticking all the BRC’s aspirational boxes.

Cynics will say, well, that’s the richest part of the country and not relevant for us. I beg to differ. This is just what people want to see in their own towns and cities, adapted to local community needs and small businesses.

Councils should listen to local people, instead of overruling them by spending thousands on London-based consultants who recommend costly vanity projects based on looking at a street plan, without understanding the local culture and history of a place. This is what ripped the heart out of so many towns and cities in the sixties, and we can’t afford to let it happen again.

As the BRC says, priorities for reviving the High Street should be creating an accessible, safe, attractive, clean, and well maintained public realm. It’s simply common sense.

6 comments for: Judy Terry: How the “nation of shopkeepers” can survive

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