Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics on Business Rates

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I started my high street retail career in the fine city of Oxford, so it’s a place that’s close to my heart.  It’s also a place where I first experienced the damage that can be done to an area by a local authority who not only takes its eye off the ball, they take the ball away and refuse to play nice with the local small business community at all.

We closed our last store where we had opened our first 20 years earlier, almost to the day, in Oxford.  It was a sad time for us, made ever more sad by a final tussle with the City Council who had refused us a change of use on the property so that we could finally sell the lease to the only people that wanted it – A Bureau de Change.  They finally relented hours before we were about to call the administrators in.

Not a great end to our Oxford experience, but one that had been marred over the previous 20 years by repeated mismanagement and lack of consideration for the high street.

From a dreadfully thought out one way system, to road works that took over a year to complete and decimated trade for years afterwards, to increasingly hiked, eye-watering parking charges, the city council couldn’t have more effectively shown my business, and many others, the door if they’d tried.

Eventually, after years of depleted useful footfall, and with a new shopping centre that we all knew was going to decimate the traditional retail areas in the city on the horizon, we finally took the hint and left.

Many other small stores and restaurants have followed suit since, and one of the more recent ones – Combibos Coffee – in Gloucester Green made their feelings clear in a newspaper article in the local press, where the owners levied the criticism that the city had “lost it’s sparkle”.

Read the original Oxford Mail Article Here

This chimed with me, not only because, as a jeweller, I think we once provided some of that sparkle, but also because as it mirrored my experience in dealing with the council a few years earlier.  My business had also applied for rates relief before we ultimately gave up on the city where we’d begun our high street adventure.  We were knocked back unceremoniously for our troubles.

The response to this article from the city council seemed to me to support my view, and that of many others in the local community, that they had not grasped the severity of problems in Oxford, particularly for smaller businesses, and were instead trying to wave away such criticism by making bland comments about supporting local businesses.

Moreover the councillor most closely concerned – Mary Clarkson – seemed to be suggesting the council were offering direct support for smaller businesses in the form of targeted business rates relief.

Read the Council’s Response

Intrigued by this claim I made a FOI request asking how many micro-businesses – nationally defined as operations employing 9 people or less – had the council given rates relief to outside of the normal concessions applied on a national basis as part of the new powers granted to local councils in the 2011 Localism Act.

The answer was virtually none.  The only rates relief given as a result of local initiatives came to approximately £40k and this was only to a group of businesses very narrowly defined by the council as operating as if they were charities.

The council made a subsequent claim to the local media that they had in fact given £31m of relief to businesses.  Closer examination of this claim revealed that they had included all the statutory government mandated relief schemes in that figure.  These included such things as transitional relief and charity relief.  As most of us will know, these are simple bolt on measures brought in by the government over many years, intended to reduce the business rates burden, instead of carrying out the root and branch review that everyone, including central government, knows is required.

My concern was that Oxford City Council, in attempting to obfuscate the fact that they have not provided any additional support, were undermining the argument that business rates do need a fundamental rethink.

I know that councils are cash-strapped by government cuts, so expecting them to provide support unaided is probably a tall order.  But in not making that point, and instead relying on empty cut and paste phrases, the council are missing an opportunity to engage with both the government and the business community on the issue.  I have to say that, for a Labour led city council, I find that doubly surprising and disappointing.

As the old truism goes, you can’t deal with a problem if you deny that there is one in the first place.

Unfortunately much of the local media have slightly missed this point and instead focussed on my criticism of the city as a “scruffy clone town”.  I think it’s arguable that it is, and that the reason for that is connected to the council’s apparent lack of support for smaller businesses that provide the diversity and distinctiveness that avoids towns and cities being described as such.  Their recent comments are really only a further indication of this.

I tried to correct this shift of focus in a radio interview I gave on Friday about the local press articles.  Sadly the council didn’t put anyone up to discuss the issue more fully, they will apparently be issuing a fuller statement in due course and I’m waiting with baited breath for that!  In the meantime, as you can hear in the interview they are relying on their claim to support local businesses using the same ‘cut and paste’ answers I accused them of in my letter.

Listen to the interview here

For those who are interested I’ve added the full text of my open letter below. At the time of writing I’ve received no response from the council or Councillor Clarkson.


Councillor Mary Clarkson
Oxford City Council

18 August 2018

Dear Councillor Clarkson

I read with interest your comments in the Oxford Mail some weeks ago in an article entitled ‘Council hits back at coffee shop claims Oxford has ‘lost its sparkle’ (Oxford Mail 14th June 2018).  This was in response to claims by a local coffee bar, Combibos Coffee, and some other small businesses in the city that Oxford had lost its appeal to consumers and that the council was not supportive towards smaller businesses, specifically those classed nationally as ‘micro businesses’ employing 9 people or less.

In the article you rebuffed claims that the council had not done enough to support such businesses in the city.  Amongst a number of rather glib statements focussing on broad indicators such as footfall and changes to the high street you made the following statement :

“Business rates are set by central government; the city council provides business rate relief to many small businesses”

Whilst I’d not dispute that business rates are indeed set by central government, the second part of your claim surprised me.  It suggested that the city council has provided specific relief to smaller businesses in Oxford over and above those it is mandated to provide by central government.  I assumed you were referring to powers available to local councils under Localism Act 2011 that gave them the discretion to apply rates relief where required.

As a former trader in the city of over 20 years standing, I’d applied myself to the council for help on business rates around 2013 when my store in Cornmarket was suffering as a result of many factors in the city that were arguably caused by the city council.  My business was refused support out of hand at the time, so I was intrigued to find out what help you may have provided to others in a similar situation as you appeared to be claiming in the Oxford Mail.

As well as being a retailer myself, I’m also a commentator and journalist on retail matters in the national and business press.  Many of the problems I highlighted to the council 5 years ago were repeated by Combibos Coffee in the Oxford Mail article you responded to. These included poor management of shared public spaces, high parking charges, lack of easy access to the city centre and a disproportionate focus on larger chain stores in the city centre.

The latter problem has now been massively compounded by the opening of the Westgate Centre which itself is only partially let and has largely cannibalised traders from elsewhere in the city, leaving large holes in the main trading streets.  There appear to have been no contingency plans laid to deal with the devastating effects of this development on other businesses in the city, especially smaller operators, not least in the Covered Market which is losing ground and tenants faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.

The response from the council has been one of apparent lack of concern and in many cases an evident lack of understanding of how the commercial property market operates.  Your colleague and former leader Bob Price was regularly heard to claim that more empty shops would lead to a reduction in rental values.  Sadly that is not the case for reasons too complicated to detail here.  It’s a shame that he, and it appears you, are not better informed on such matters.

As a result of your claims in The Oxford Mail, I made a FOI request asking for details of how the city council had provided business rates relief to “many small businesses”.  The response to that request and subsequent clarification you provided to the Oxford Mail demonstrates that little has changed in the council’s approach since my days as a city trader.

Although the city council apparently have no records of how many businesses apply for discretionary relief, you were able to confirm that none had been offered such relief in the preceding 2 years.  I was told that micro businesses “would not normally qualify for Discretionary Relief in the Oxford City Area”.  So the facts seem to run contrary to your claims.

You do apparently offer some relief, but only to a very narrowly defined group of businesses which “act like a charity, but do not have charitable status”.  Even then, you have only provided this to an average of 8 businesses a year and currently provide it to 6.  I doubt that would fit any reasonable definition of “many small businesses” as you have claimed.  The only other form of locally administered relief is hardship relief, for businesses in temporary difficulties.  According to your own figures you haven’t provided this to anyone.  Again, hardly a figure anyone would reasonably describe as “many”.

Your further response to the Oxford Mail did however provide a long list of other business rates rebates and discounts.  These included Mandatory (Charitable) Relief, Small Business Rate Relief, Transitional Relief, Empty Property Relief, Rural Relief, Public House Relief, Supporting Small Business, Local Discretionary Revaluation Relief and Local Newspaper Relief.

To the uninitiated this sounds like an impressive list, but as I assume you know, these are all government mandated schemes imposed and essentially funded by central government.  None of them are initiatives created or provided by Oxford City Council as you implied in the article on 14th June.  The council has no choice, no say, and does not directly contribute financially in the application of these rebates.  These are not optional or locally created schemes and so it’s misleading and disingenuous for the council to claim credit for them.

Contrary to your claims, essentially no direct support exists for small local businesses in Oxford similar to Combibos Coffee to offset the unique problems in the city centre, many of which have been created by your administration.  It follows then that your comments in the newspaper and the assertions your department have made since are at best confused and at worst factually incorrect and misleading.

I am aware from my own experience that the council takes the view that discretionary support should only be offered when it returns a direct benefit to the city and I can to some extent understand that.  I also understand that all local authorities are under immense financial pressure as a result of central government cuts, and very few if any have given rates relief on a purely discretionary basis.  But ignoring this fact and the associated pressures on local businesses and making misleading claims about local business rates concessions does not properly highlight this plight.  Neither does it help the national debate on the inequities of the business rates system.

The underuse of discretionary powers also overlooks the value of the amenity provided by such businesses, not to mention the employment and direct contributions they make in the form of local taxation prior to running into such difficulties.  I would also assert that there is a responsibility on you as a council, especially an allegedly socialist led council, to ensure that smaller businesses who are simply looking to make a reasonable living are able to do so, especially when they are providing valuable employment to people in the city.  Yes they are still private enterprises, but their continued success has many knock-on benefits for the city.

These are usually owner-operated outlets working hard against ever diminishing odds to simply stay afloat.  They are not in the same league as the large well-financed corporate operations your council seems to favour, particularly those likely to be attracted to the new shopping centre, itself a development instigated and operated by large wealthy conglomerates.

It’s also noteworthy that, unlike many other councils considering such developments within their purview, you did not impose any requirements on the developers to provide smaller, subsidised units for independent operators other than the usual ubiquitous RMUs.  But considering you didn’t deem it worthy of ensuring the housing element of the development would be affordable for key workers, I suppose this is hardly surprising.

I have to say that I agree with the original assertion by Combibos Coffee that Oxford has “lost its sparkle”.  Having traded in the city since the early 90s I’ve seen it go from a vibrant, destination location to a scruffy, poorly managed, clone town, trading on its past glories.  Over the past 10 years it’s essentially been allowed to go feral by a council who seems to have no concept of how an historic city should be nurtured, shaped and supported.

I was very sad to have to close both my stores in the Oxford after 20 years commitment to the city and it saddens me even more to see other small businesses being forced out in the same way.  It’s little wonder that so many of them are collapsing, if your response to such events is careless platitudes and specious claims.

It’s a truism that you have to recognise there is a problem before you can find the solution.  That solution is not issuing blanket media statements with claims that do not bear closer scrutiny.  So I would ask that you at least be honest with the business community and the wider public and admit that as a council you have no schemes in place that support small local enterprise and perhaps consider setting some up.

Oxford could be a special place again given the right local political will, but from your repeated cut and paste answers it seems that will is not there.  Neither is there any tangible support for struggling small businesses, despite your claims to the contrary.

I’m happy to discuss these matters in more detail if you think that would be useful.  In any event I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing an honest clarification of the position of the council on discretionary business rates relief in the near future.

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Oxford Finally Flips The Switch On The On/Off Shopping Centre

westgateoxfordOxford is an ancient city.  Even by medieval standards things move slowly here.  So after what seems like centuries of wrangling, planning applications, withdrawn projects, hand shaking and head banging, Oxford is finally set to join other cities with a giant shiny shopping centre nobody really needs any more.

Having experienced the damage that these behemoths can do to small local retailers, myself included, this is a moment I and many others have dreaded.

The council of course has applied a heavy spin on the whole project, whilst ushering the developers and large multi-nationals into the city with wide-eyed certainty that a new shopping centre will solve all the problems we now have.

We know at least one of those problems – that of affordable housing in the city centre – won’t even be dented by this grandiose project.  In a move that is frankly baffling from a socialist led council, planners have dashed all hopes that the accommodation element designed into the revamped centre would be for social housing or affordable homes.  Whilst Green councillors opposed this move, others apparently felt that poorer people won’t be able to keep the new apartments up to the standards they expect to be demanded.

So no comfortable inner-city pied-à-terres for the ordinary folk of Oxford then.  Which is a shame considering Oxford City Council provided virtually nothing for that sector last year, despite claims that this was a priority policy.

Jobs are not the only thing to consider

Judging by the analyses carried out over the past 10 years it looks highly likely that the new Westgate extension in Oxford will have a significant impact on other retail destinations both in the immediate vicinity and county wide.

The council has claimed that 3400 jobs will be created by the opening of the new centre, which seems like a rather optimistic number to me.  Even if one accepts that figure, previous analyses have suggested that the number of jobs created will be far outweighed by those that will be destroyed elsewhere in the city and the surrounding areas.

It’s very easy to focus just on the number of jobs created, but when similar centres have opened there have been many casualties in other areas. This doesn’t even take into account the damage that’s likely to be done to trade during the building and infrastructure works and the impact of additional competition for small retailers that attracting large multi-nationals into the area will provide.

Until the council addresses the systemic issues with people visiting the city, such as parking, local transport and city centre management, a revamped shopping centre isn’t going to add that much prosperity to a town encircled by much better alternatives.  There’s also some question over likely losses to the council in terms of business rates which could run in to hundreds of thousands.

The new shopping centre will likely have some novelty value for a few months, but once the realities of trading in Oxford begin to bite, I doubt it’ll be anything more than another usual-suspect clone-town brand zoo.

Years of disruption

According to a recent article in the Oxford Mail, a scrutinising committee of city centre councillors are due to meet to discuss ways of keeping businesses alive during the hugely disruptive infrastructure works needed for the new extension.

roadworksSo Oxford City Council wait until AFTER the works have begun to think about how to mitigate the problems that will inevitably be caused by the works?

Another great example of the forethought and careful planning we’ve come to expect from our wonderful city council!

I was at a meeting with both the city and county council leaders over a year ago where I highlighted the potential damage that will be done by the infrastructure works required for the Westgate extension. Having already experienced the same in Bristol a few years before, it was clear to me and many others that the likely upheaval required for the Westgate works were going to do more damage than they were likely to be worth in the current climate.

Seems like it all fell on deaf ears. As usual.

Empty shops

My business in Cornmarket Street closed it’s doors for the last time after 20 years last year. Despite numerous pronouncements in the press that the city council was eager to support local businesses, we got zip-all support, even after asking on several occasions.  Indeed, at one point their planning department were very close to scuppering the only deal we could achieve to sell the store. Had they not done a last minute U-turn there would have been one more empty and un-lettable shop in the city centre.

In an era where many retail chains are looking to reduce their portfolios, the time for this centre has been and gone.   At the end of this year, 40% of retail leases nationwide will come to an end, sparking speculation that many large and medium chains won’t renew them.  The costs of retail space in many towns, Oxford included, is now at odds with likely returns on investment.  A new mall plonked into the middle of that scenario risks hoovering up any viable city retailer, leaving the existing shopping areas a wasteland as companies let leases lapse and move on.

There’s already plenty of retail space in Oxford city centre, some of it lying vacant even now.  Not least the huge former HMV store, empty for most of last year in what should be a prime location on Cornmarket.  The new Westgate development will seriously shift the focus of the town away from the existing shopping areas with the main anchor store, John Lewis, being located well away from the current main shopping destinations.  Again this is a very similar scenario to Bristol’s Cabot Circus development, which saw most of the legacy retail locations abandoned en masse by any store that could afford the move.

Councillors are also now apparently worried about the growing number of empty shops in the city, despite previous claims that there were queues of businesses eager to take space.  Perhaps news has started to filter out that retailing in Oxford is not what it once was.

In that context one has to wonder who is going to populate the new cathedral of consumption when it is finally completed, and for those that do take up residence, what kind of trading environment will they find?  With one of the worst December trading periods on record just behind us and radical changes in consumer habits continuing apace, it really does beg the question about how much space will be required when the Westgate centre is completed in 2017.  Moreover what will the rest of the city look like once all the remaining viable stores have de-camped into the waiting warmth of a lovely new mall?

910484_23238014With council plans to push up the cost of parking YET AGAIN and the negative impact of roadworks, and the city centre looking like a building site, it’s likely most consumers will continue to go elsewhere to shop, surrounded as we are by much more attractive and easily reached locations around the city and the county.  And once again, experience tells me that once people find better alternatives, they’re unlikely to return, other than for a quick nose around the new development.

A committee composed of councillors with absolutely no idea how businesses in Oxford operate, setting out to ‘examine’ how to deal with these issues now, is tantamount to closing the door after the horse has bolted, lived out it’s natural life and ended up in a dog food tin.  This project as has been in the planning stages for so many years it’s truly staggering that the implications are only being discussed now.

Oxford is of course known as the city of ‘dreaming spires’.  It seems that in terms of strategic planning, many of our councillors have also been asleep on the job.

Councils Should Stop Using Retailers As Bait In The Parking Trap

parking_signParking in town centres is a particularly thorny issue for me. As a Green I believe that we should curtail car use, especially in congested cities. But as a town centre retailer I know that cars remain the preferred choice of travel for the vast majority of shoppers, and as a pragmatist, I see that we need to balance the needs of local commerce with the modern world’s addiction to the internal combustion engine.

Parking has also been something of a luke-warm potato for local authorities for a while now. Told as they were by the last Labour government to push up the price of town centre parking, many of them saw this as a way of offsetting the swingeing cost cuts now being imposed by a government of a different hue. This has laid the foundations for cost hikes by many a cash-strapped council, and the opportunity to make a political point into the bargain has also not been lost on them, in particular by councillors in Oxfordshire where I’m based.

An RAC survey recently reported that councils taking Labour’s advice to heart have raked in some pretty impressive surpluses as a result. Oxfordshire alone netted a whopping £7.52M last year with the city centre trousering £4.56M after a 15% increase in charges over two years.

The predominantly Labour run city council, points to this as a successful part of a low carbon Oxford policy, something which I support in principle. But as a city centre retailer, I simply see them jacking up parking costs under a nebulous green smokescreen, with little concern for the impact this has on my small business. Whatever the true motivations, it’s inarguable that current policy does little to generate widespread consensus for a business friendly, green agenda.

The same can be said for the other side of the argument. Communities Minister Brandon Lewis recently engaged in an acrimonious and unedifying exchange on Twitter with Labour’s Hilary Benn over claims about their previous guidance to local authorities. Labour’s rebuttal saw them accusing Conservative councils of making more money from parking than Labour authorities, based on figures that are still hotly debated. Whatever the true position is, I imagine most local government officers would have found these criticisms a lot easier to swallow had Brandon Lewis not gone on to announce a further budget cut of 2.9% shortly after his exchange with Benn.

Worryingly, the RAC claims that Oxford is only 32nd out of 353 councils in terms of surpluses being made from parking across the country. Suggesting that many local authorities are now just as dependent on the teat of the parking cash cow as motorists are on the petrol pump. Stories of increases are now emerging on an almost daily basis across the country as councils are placed under further pressure to balance the books.

Underlying effect

Brent Cross Free ParkingTaken in isolation, parking seems less consequential than pressures such as spiralling business rates or rents. But the underlying effect of high charges and swingeing fines are just as corrosive to the goodwill we all work hard to foster. Any retailer will tell you that parking is vital to their business and they feel the pain when this is made more expensive or less available.

Those that question the advantages and disadvantages of parking provision only have to ask why, if it’s such a side-issue, do out of town shopping centres and even some city centre malls invariably include some element of free or cheap parking as part of their DNA? It’s because they know that, given the choice, most car borne visitors will gravitate to the areas that offer the best deal on parking and access, leaving towns where parking is restricted or overpriced playing on a distinctly bumpy playing field.

Convenience

People expect the convenience that easy parking offers and feel very much used by any town that fleeces them for the same service. Most will only be caught out once and then choose to shop elsewhere in future, even if that involves significantly more travelling. And let’s not forget that by pushing shoppers to take longer journeys to reach further flung destinations, we’re increasing the carbon emissions that we’re all supposedly trying to prevent.

Most retailers and restaurateurs have come to regard themselves as the bait in the parking trap and look on with impotent dismay at the damage being wrought on a town’s reputation by local councils with an apparent disregard for the principles of supply and demand. Decisions about parking provision are usually taken in spite of the businesses that rely on them, rather than in consultation with them.

Yet as businesspeople we’re pragmatists and understand the fiscal imperatives. For example, many would be happy to be involved in some sort of parking validation scheme, whereby we contribute to the cost of a customer’s parking if they make a purchase. This is a well established practice in the USA and yet is something that is rarely available here.

Solutions

In the end though, we have to tackle the environmental damage being caused by cars and the most sensible compromise in the cases of over-congested cities is the excellent Park & Ride concept. Even though research in Cambridge has raised doubts about how much reduction in car use they contributed to, Park and Ride is usually pointed to by campaigners as a good first step towards car free cities. This has to be backed wholeheartedly by the local authority though and be integrated as part of an overall strategy that both encourages visitors to the town and ensures they leave their cars on the outskirts.

validationHere Oxford fares rather miserably again. The council has of late chosen to treat the P&R facility as cash generator in it’s own right. After successive hikes in bus fares and the introduction of a parking fee as well, the cost of short term parking is now roughly equivalent to the cost of parking in the city centre for the first few hours. Such a shame that after leading the way as one of the first such schemes in the country, the council has basically reneged on the bargain with motorists who had hitherto been persuaded to leave their car behind. An example yet again of an ostensibly green policy being perverted as a means of raising cash off the backs of motorists, shoppers and retailers.

Cities can also be made more pedestrian friendly in themselves.  Living Streets, a charity focussing on improving pedestrian usage of cities and town centres, published a report last year that suggested people on foot spend significantly more than those who travel to an area by car. This of course relies again on sympathetic urban planning and a good local residential base. It’s a model that has great merit in many circumstances, but in terms of larger cities who need to attract people from farther afield to justify their higher overheads, it may not be as workable.

A radical idea?

Another option I’ve proposed in the past is a compulsory national parking tariff where public and private parking areas would be legally obliged to charge for parking at a rate set by central government, calculated in a similar way to business rates, depending on location and amenity.  This would have to be charged direct to motorists and not offset by mall landlords against service charges to tenants.  Such a scheme could generate funds from all locales and enable councils to level the costs of parking in their districts, thus reducing the bias towards shopping centres.  It would be a tricky thing to implement, but it might be an interesting exercise to at least consider.

Repeated studies, reports and polices have sought to address the issue of parking.  Many have agreed that it’s one of the most important factors underpinning high street revival.  Yet neither local or national government have seriously grasped the nettle and demonstrated a willingness to sympathetically combine the competing pressures of local finance, business and environmentalism into a coherent policy.

Ultimately the answer to parking, our reliance on car usage, and ways of encouraging pedestrians back into town centres has to be tackled on a holistic basis across the country. It should be seen as part of a commercial eco-system in itself, along with the businesses and services that depend on encouraging visitors to particular areas.

It’s most likely that the answer will lie in a combination of approaches, but it’s certain that it’s not to be found in simply changing a tariff notice and waiting for the obliging motorist to magic away the impecuniosities of local government. That’s an idea that’s already overstayed it’s allotted time, and for which there’s eventually going to be a hefty penalty due from all of us.

High street decline – Re-task or re-think?

6741713-a-decaying-and-rusty-street-sign-for-a-high-street-representing-commercail-and-retail-in-decline

There’s been much talk  from various quarters about needing to come terms with the idea that the high street is dying.  Bill Grimesy has set this as the starting point in many discussions, and more recently the head of Ocado, Tim Steiner, expounded pretty similar views in a rather unhelpful gush of vitriol to the national press.

The rhetoric characteristically continues along the lines that we’d all better get used to it and deal with the reality.  ‘Dealing with it’ usually involves tacit agreement that shopping malls will be the main destination for consumers of the future and the rest of the slack will be taken up by the direct internet purchases, click and collect and m-commerce.

Ailing high streets, we’re told, will need to re-imagine themselves into areas that will attract people for a variety of reasons rather than just shopping.  Empty retail properties will be re-tasked into other uses, primarily residential.  There’s usually a raft of other ideas that come along in this mix.  Crèches, art galleries, community centres and various other esoteric uses are floated as essential ingredients in a new-age municipal Mecca that will sweep away the tumbleweeds and revitalise areas that people that are staying away from in droves right now.

It’s a view predicated on pragmatism that has some merit.  But I’d ask at what point does pragmatism slip into the realms of defeatism?  I think we’re a long way off from throwing in the towel on the high street, we just need the political will to deal with the underlying problems that have dogged it since investment landlords, property developers and city councillors first crawled out of the primordial slime.

Logical

I don’t argue with the logic of mixed uses in any retail environment, based as it is to a large extent on models already in existence in the shopping centres and mega-malls that are now a ubiquitous part of the UK consumer landscape.  It’s a truism that shoppers don’t just want to shop these days.  They want to drink coffee, browse the internet, have a free makeover or a life-changing experience on a climbing wall.  But with all this already available in the big  retail and recreational cathedrals, one has to wonder why exactly people would return to high streets, even after the proposed transformations are complete.  If all it’s going to take to bring these people back into their local areas is a few new service providers and a community centre, why hasn’t this already been done years ago?

parking_1879549cThe answer lies in the roots of all the problems currently besetting local high streets.  That of high rents, high rates, poor provision of expensive parking facilities, and the lack of a co-ordinated approach to tenant mix and shared space management.  Yes the same boring old issues I’ve been going on about for years, but they haven’t got any less injurious to retailers fortunes with age.

These shortcomings have already been trumpeted by various commentators and pundits, not to mention being detailed chapter and verse in the Portas Review.  It’s likely that Bill Grimesy will cover some or all of this same ground again when his own report is published in a few weeks.

None of this is news, certainly not to those retailers struggling in such areas, or to the landlords faced with empty properties as a result of previous failures.  The answer is to deal with these issues, not just talk about them.  The answer is not to give up on the high street model and dismantle it by stealth.

Small high streets are incubators for fresh retail ideas driven by entrepreneurs with a good idea and not much capital.  The fall in real terms value of commercial property should be a positive benefit in those circumstances, but by and large this is being undermined by landlords and developers who are desperately holding on, waiting for the boom times to return.

Add to this a government equally addicted to milking the high street cash cow through an iniquitous business rates system, and you don’t need to be an economic whizz kid to see why high street property has become toxic.

Re-model Re-task

By making a case for re-tasking or re-modelling empty shops we simply lay the groundwork for landlords and developers who would love to be able to turn empty shops into ‘luxury flats’ or demolish problem locations altogether and start again.  And who could blame them?

imagesBut in doing so we risk losing a valuable resource that we’ll probably never get back.  Stores that right now that could, and should, be let on viable rents to small retailers eager to get a foot on the commercial property ladder.  And I mean on proper long or medium term leases, not the fudgy panacea of the pop-up.

Once these units are gone those opportunities will disappear too.  The large malls aren’t interested in small retailers in the long term, no matter how much they might say they are, and once there’s no other alternative where will independents have left to go?

Yes some small retail units will likely be left in town centres, or included in redevelopments.  But then the reduction in availability will simply serve to support the high aspirations of landlords that have led us down the road we’re currently coming to the end of.  The fact that there are large numbers of empty units being left languishing by landlords and letting agents asking for frankly stupid rents should be seen as a potential resource, not a problem to be erased by sending in yet more deep pocketed developers.

Opportunity knocks

There is an opportunity right now to rescue the situation by forcing landlords back into the real world.  I’ve long advocated imposed rent control and local retail zoning, similar to the systems put in place to deal with down at heel areas in the USA in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  If a property is empty for a certain period of time, local authorities would be able to take over the administration and let the unit on a fair rent.  Landlords would be offered a return on investment at a set level above the current base rate and would of course lose liability for empty business rates.

This would go hand in hand with new planning powers to ensure a sensible tenant mix within given zones, thereby reducing the ‘usual suspect’ nature of small high streets, often populated with the same facades of betting shops, charity shops, coffee bars, mobile phone operators and the like.

atla-rent2-0120I’m all for the free market economy but high street decline is a socio-economic issue that needs to be managed at a local and national government level.  It has knock on effects to the well-being and safety of local citizens and the monetary and social costs associated with those factors.

I’m not averse to seeing retail units turned into other service type uses, but I am very much concerned that once permanent changes are made to retail properties, especially into residential, we’ll see a decline in the small independent sector that will simply strengthen the dominance of  large malls and developments that are far less supportive of those types of operations.

Re-tasking retail into other uses is certainly going to be an interest grabber for politicians and developers keen to make a killing out of empty units in town centres.  But if they also kill off the high street in the process I think they rest of us will all be the poorer for it. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”

The Pearly Queen of the High Street?

pearly-queens-pie-and-mash-06

Whatever Mary Portas says in the various interviews she’s given about her new show ‘Mary Queen of the High Street’, Tuesday’s airing of the programme featuring Roman Road was little more than the same script we’ve seen played out in most of her recent series.  It may have been a fresh approach all those years ago when she first clattered on to our screens, but it’s now a tired, tawdry format that her production company have milked almost to death.  Indeed according to some of the local traders involved the experience was less than regal for many of them.

Amongst all the hype and hyperbole that’s surrounded the Mary’s involvement in the government’s high street revival plans, she’s always been right about one thing.  This is a serious issue, affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people.  So it deserved rather more that what we saw on Tuesday.  This should have been a serious documentary.  Instead we got a barely watchable ‘show’ as in ‘show-biz’. 

As with most of her more recent programmes this was all about Mary, dressed up to the nines, posing for the cameras and promoting the Portas brand.  Mary sashaying about , Mary pointing and gesticulating and having staged encounters with traders and the general public.  Mary deep in discussion with the public about how well or otherwise she comes across on TV.

shopping-in-paris-thumb9157330Timing is everything

Time that should have been spent dealing with serious structural problems facing the area was wasted on jaunts to Paris and interminable tracking shots of Mary walking up and down rows of stalls talking about rain covers.  Finally we had her usual trademark finale set piece : This time a good old East End knees-up.  Just in case she hadn’t already patronised the locals enough.

Yet we’re told there wasn’t enough time in all this to feature progress she claims to have made with the council over parking charges and restrictions.  Probably the one thing that most of the retailers in the area were most concerned about.  Certainly something that was in her report and something she suddenly seems to have accepted as key to regeneration, albeit maybe only in interviews in the run up to her new show.  It was also something that was raised in her early brief encounter with the hairdressers in the programme.  Oddly enough we never seemed to return to them to discover what they thought of her ‘improvements’ to the area.

No Makeover

She claimed at the outset that it wasn’t going to be a makeover show, yet that’s exactly what we got.  When it came to it she couldn’t resist calling on her old standby approach : Pick one hapless retailer, march into their shop and spend a few moments deriding their wares. 

“Who’d buy that?” is one of her stock phrases, usually followed by a plaintive reply from the retailer that it’s one of their best lines.  Pure dismissal of the experience of the person that’s been there for a fair bit longer than she has, but good camera fodder, as she knows so well.  Then she sets about turning them into something more appealing.  Or rather her ‘team’ does.  Usually an easy win given that she usually picks on a store that even the most inexperienced shopkeeper could improve with a good clear-out and a lick of paint.

Yes the bric-a-brac shop looked great after the refit, and I totally agree that the person running the store was missing a trick.  But what she produced was a fully formed, niche retail experience.  Only problem is the niche customers are mostly in Mary’s head.  True, she found one or two in the local area, but one or two aren’t going spend enough to pay the proprietors rent, the rates and subsidise the council’s parking charges, nor would their business foot the bill for the fabulous refit, which I suspect was actually paid for by the TV company.  Mary’s hunch that these few boho locals were going to turn this person’s business around certainly didn’t justify the ludicrous idea that this small shop could be converted into an ‘anchor store’, 

The anchor store concept, which she borrowed from larger retail developments, requires a huge, already established, store to burst on the scene bringing in it’s loyal band of customers.  It’s not something you can create simply by dint of location, as appears to be the case here.  Certainly something that’s difficult to achieve from a standing start.  Still I suppose it made it all Mary’s thrashing around for ideas seem terribly scientific and purposeful.  But in the end it was just tinkering, and tinkering with someone else’s business at that.  But then that’s always easier to do when you don’t have to face the consequences a few months down the line, as one or two other stores Mary has ‘made-over’ in the past have reportedly done.

questions and answersQuestions, questions

The end of the show left more questions than answers.  What indeed had been done about the parking?  How were the original stallholders doing after Mary’s changes?  How many of them were left?  Were any of them removed to make way for her newcomers?  How were the existing Food & Beverage uses doing in the face of the new competition she’s introduced?

I’ve never doubted Mary’s veracity or her enthusiasm for what she’s doing. At the outset I was optimistic that she had the public profile as well as the chutzpah to fight the corner for retail against an obviously blasé government. 

But since her report was published she’s been swept away with the razzmatazz that was introduced by the government officials behind it.  The Willy Wonka Golden Ticket claims from the then minister responsible Grant Shapps.  The audition videos to became a Portas Pilot.  The branding of the whole experience itself.  It’s like it was all designed to take the focus off the most important issues facing retailers today : Rent, Rates and Parking, all of which were highlighted in Mary’s report only to be subsequently ignored by Shapps and his successor Mark Prisk. 

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that government spin doctors, much more accomplished in the dark arts of misdirection than Portas, used her wide eyed naïveté and dangled such shiny things in front of her.  She could easily have eschewed such distractions and pushed home her very well pitched report.  Refused to be driven off the course that she has constantly claimed to be on : That of dealing with the structural issues that have destroyed the high street over the past several years.  But when the chips were down she instead took the government’s shilling and disappeared down her usual rabbit hole of self promotion, hoopla and car crash, reality TV sham.

Infamy! Infamy!  They’ve all got it in for me! 

infamyIn a final twist of the ridiculous, Mary is now starting to claim that criticism of her is based on a political motive.  Where this originates from is a mystery to most commentators, certainly to me.  She’s quite right that she was given the perfect opportunity to cut through the political divides with her appointment by David Cameron all those moons ago.  But she blew it when let herself be sucked into the party machinery that she’s now crying foul of.  That has a lot less to do with politics and more with personal interest and ego.  Something no one has ever accused her of lacking in abundance.

If this first show is what we can expect as the culmination of her grand masterwork, I really don’t think it was worth the wait.  At best it was boring and mildly entertaining.  At worst it was selling retailers up the river for some cheap voyeurism and an easy TV fee. 

With the air date having apparently put back several times, it showed all the hallmarks of something cobbled together to try to fulfil the hopes of her TV production company.  The same company that has been tagging along since the Portas Pilot winners were announced and the same company that allegedly lobbied government over the most TV friendly locations to award the pilot money to.

In the end the only ratings values these people care about are the ones for the show, not those forcing many of the faces they’re using on screen out of business. 

Ultimately what we saw achieved nothing, except to fill a Portas sized hole in the Channel 4 schedule.  I like to think the livelihoods of independent retailers up and down the country are worth more than that.  Up until last night I thought Mary Portas felt the same.