Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Portas Retail Therapy: less is more?

The High Street Innovation Fund, launched a year ago, was part of the government’s response to Ms Portas’ review of the High Street.

Results have been mixed. Shop vacancies have gone down in seven towns, but more shops overall have closed than opened.BBC You and Yours: 29 May 2013 – Portas High Streets still struggling one year on

Perhaps “number of units open” is not a good way to access the “vibrancy” of a town centre – particularly if many of those units are pawn shops / cash-converters, bookies, and second-hand shops.

Revised planning rules coming into force in England could lead to new “clusters” of betting shops and money lenders, according to local councils.BBC News website 30 May 2013 High Street planning changes criticised by councils

If we are (irreversibly) doing more shopping on the internet and at out-of-town sites, we have to accept that means less in the high street. Retail Park and Internet spending is primarily “substitutive” not “additive”.  I do not subscribe to the idea that providing us with more opportunities to spend more of our money on buying more foreign-made goods is good for the economy. My spending is finite – I imagine (and hope) I am not alone.

If less is being spent in the high street, you either spread that spending over the same number of shops which then struggle at the tatty end of the spectrum, or you reduce the number of shops.

Understandably, landlords are probably an issue when it comes to shrinking the high street (ideally you want to concentrate fewer shops into a smaller area rather than spread them across the existing area). However, if shops on the edges of the central retail area were to close permanently you could either convert them to other uses or if a building is of little architectural value turn it into landscaped near-town-centre parking.

Trying to maintain the size of the retail area in many towns strikes me as Canute like.  (But I am not sure how a council gets away with defining a central zone as “core town centre retail” with the implication that peripheral areas of the existing centre are not.   Peripheral landlords may take umbrage.) However, reducing capacity is a tactic that has been applied elsewhere.

I just wish that my home town had a smaller better centre with fewer empty shops, fewer tat shops (tat is much cheaper over the internet) and fewer parasitic businesses (such as bookies and pawn shops).  Some of the grottiest buildings at the edge of the existing centre could be usefully demolished to provide either more open space or more off-street short-term parking (such as that at the major retail parks).  I imagine that we could lose 20% of our retail square footage and the result would be more vibrant and more sustainable.  Looked as a “whole system” if may even be cash positive.


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