Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Higgs Boson, Mary Portas and Britain’s High Streets

 Two things we learned yesterday about the nature of our universe:

First, the news coming from the scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider: the Higgs Boson particle might exist. And if it does, it will be found. Probaby. By next year. Possibly.

Second, according to “retail guru” Mary Portas, Britain’s High Streets are heading in the opposite direction – towards oblivion. Mary Portas was asked by the British government to report on the decline of the High Street, and has published a report setting out her thinking.

Although she doesn’t use these words, the fate of the High Street in the UK is clearly a Wicked Problem – with multiple causes and no single remedy. (picture from Mary’s recommendations to halt the decline are listed below:

1. Put in place a “Town Team”: a visionary, strategic and strong operational management team for high streets

2. Empower successful Business Improvement Districts to take on more responsibilities and powers and become “Super-BIDs”

3. Legislate to allow landlords to become high street investors by contributing to their Business Improvement District

4. Establish a new “National Market Day” where budding shopkeepers can try their hand at operating a low-cost retail business

5. Make it easier for people to become market traders by removing unnecessary regulations so that anyone can trade on the high street unless there is a valid reason why not

6. Government should consider whether business rates can better support small businesses and independent retailers

7. Local authorities should use their new discretionary powers to give business rate concessions to new local businesses

8. Make business rates work for business by reviewing the use of the RPI with a view to changing the calculation to CPI

9. Local areas should implement free controlled parking schemes that work for their town centres and we should have a new parking league table

10. Town Teams should focus on making high streets accessible, attractive and safe

11. Government should include high street deregulation as part of their ongoing work on freeing up red tape

12. Address the restrictive aspects of the ‘Use Class’ system to make it easier to change the uses of key properties on the high street

13. Put betting shops into a separate ‘Use Class’ of their own

One of the facts included in the report is that, “Excluding Central London, high street footfall has fallen by around 10% in the last three years”. Mary attributes this to a range of factors, including internet shopping and the attractiveness of out-of-town (car-borne) retail. Especially where there’s free parking. There is much to support in the report, but it’s a pity that, for all the discussion of footfall, there’s not much consideration of how walkability can enhance the attractiveness and economic well being of our High Streets.
For Mary, the equation seems to be: free car parking = increased footfall => increasing viability on the High Street. It seems that she has fallen into the trap of underestimating the importance of pedestrian activity to the local economy, thinking that is common to retailers and was identified in a recent report from Living Streets.
clip_image002According to Living Streets, ”a study in Bristol found that retailers on a local high street overestimated the proportion of shoppers arriving by car by almost double at 41% compared with the actual proportion of 22%. In fact, over half of the shoppers had arrived there by foot, and greater proportions had arrived by bus and cycle than those estimated by retailers. The retailers also underestimated how far pedestrians had travelled to get to the high street; over 60% lived within 1 mile, possibly explaining the greater proportion that walked, and pedestrians generally visited more shops than those arriving by car. This misconception of the contribution that pedestrians make to local shops may also explain the importance placed on features to support motorised access (e.g. public transport and parking) by retailers. Improvements to the public realm in Exeter City Centre……corresponded with an increase in footfall of almost 20% over the same period.”

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