Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Is the high street doomed?

on January 3, 2014

Yesterday (January 2, 2014), two local businesses in the southern part of the London Borough of Enfield announced that they would be closing this month.  The businesses have much in common – they are both independent stores, they both sell goods for the home or for celebration (gifts and cards), both have only been trading for five years or less and both are run and managed by outstanding young, female entrepreneurs who have collected multiple awards during their trading period.  The announcements lead to an outpouring of sadness, disappointment and frustration on social media that such innovative and unique shops are disappearing from their respective town centres.  The shops in question are Ruby Blu in Southgate and Papylon in Winchmore Hill.

I’m in an interesting position here to assess this rather depressing turn of events.  For one thing, both of these shops have supported my own venture, London Letters, by taking and selling my greeting cards.  I know that both shops are supportive of local artists and manufacturers where they are able, and are active in their communities.  As a consumer, I have supported both shops by buying from them.  And now, as I’ve recently gone back into the town planning, I find myself collating ideas together to help my employer comment on ways to ‘create a vibrant town centre moving beyond a traditional offer’ as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.

The Red Tape Challenge was launched by the Cabinet Office in April 2011.  It addresses the idea that, whilst some regulation is necessary and beneficial, over the years it – and the ‘inspection and bureaucratic regimes’ that go alongside it – have ‘piled up and up’.  The Government believes that unnecessary regulation has constrained business, damaged the economy and discouraged people from getting involved in their communities.  It wants to remove regulation and both allow freedom and show trust to enable people to, ‘do the right thing’.

It’s difficult to tell how much the idea has set the world alight – the official Twitter feed last posted in August 2013 to its 753 followers and the website states that the process will last until April 2013, though it’s still very much open today.  The current call for evidence concerns the ‘regulatory burden’ affecting town centres. 

I wondered whether there was any mileage in looking at the response on social media to the announcement of the closure of these two shops that might help with my efforts to understand where the regulatory burdens might actually be that could feed into my response.  There are limitations in doing this – it’s unscientific, subjective and I don’t actually know the real reasons for these shops closing – but it might provide pointers that give an indication of the underlying problems that a cross section of society sees with town centres and the smaller, independent traders trying to exist on the high street.

It came as no real surprise to me that regulation barely features as a cited problem facing traders on the high street.  Even if it was, I’m not convinced that fiddling with it would help town centres.  In fact, I don’t even think that the Government is fully appreciative of the range of problems facing town centres to suggest that reducing regulation is one way to save them. 

Significant concerns expressed related to the state of the economy and competition from the larger high street retailers and operators. Town centres need attractions to bring people into them – a diverse offer and a safe environment with decent transport and available parking is part of that.  Whilst retail parks and out of centre shopping centres continue to offer this, town centres have failed to keep pace.  This is about infrastructure– the size and shape of retail units, the clean and dry environment, the way that parking is managed and charged for.  It’s also partly down to those large companies that own and manage retail parks and shopping centres, pitted against the public authorities that are trying to make town centres attractive with meagre resources and means available to them and diverse ownerships and interests to manage compared with the more straightforward task faced at purpose built shopping centres. 

Clearly people feel that rising food, energy, fuel and housing prices against a backdrop of relative decrease in wages puts pressure on household budgets. Larger companies have economies of scale and can offer cheaper goods, bought in bulk.  Supermarkets can offer a wide range of food and non-food goods and can also offer these online because people know who they are and what they offer.  New, unknown companies will find it hard to compete online against well-known brands.  Further, those supermarkets have infiltrated the high street in a micro form, making it more difficult for the diversity needed in individual town centres to flourish.  At a time of austerity, people need to find the basics quickly and easily and at a good price; many people find they are less time-rich than they were and that there’s not the time to browse the local shops and support the independents.  Needs must.

Of course, the internet offers a realistic alternative to the high street.  Many people are internet savvy and the internet allows easy comparison of prices and an increasing reliability in terms of delivery and quality.  The high street appears to be increasingly left with those businesses that can’t operate online – hair salons, nail bars, coffee shops, estate agents – and those preying on the less well-off elements of society – charity shops, betting shops and money lenders where, ironically, a relaxation of regulation has made it easier to set them up.  It means that the physical environment for independent stores and competitive attractors in town centres is constrained by the public purse and by the nature of businesses willing to take space on the traditional high street.

Many of the comments received also focus on the high rents, utility charges and business rates faced by smaller traders, and on the lack of support available to start-up businesses to allow them to set up and then flourish on the high street.  They comment on how town centre parking is either too strictly enforced or regulated by Councils who are perceived to see the motorist as an easy revenue stream, or too sparse to warrant a trip to it for fear of being unable to park, something which is also seen to affect any passing trade.

All of these and more could be factors in the closure of these two shops.  What was clear is that there is a sizeable proportion of the population who do value the high street as a place to shop, meet and provide a focus for their community, and ideas for improving this were also discussed.  These included stronger networks between businesses, business owners and their communities (including schools) which could act as a basis for mutual support; the possibility of shorter or rolling leases for town centre units and the splitting up of larger units for a number of different traders which might offer community functions as well as retail and commercial space (but may be tripped up by uncooperative landlords), and better public transport, which addresses some of the problems associated with parking costs and parking spaces.

What is clear is that the solution for town centres is going to be hard – if not impossible – to find, and that tweaks to regulation are certainly not the answer alone.

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