Plan­ners face a chal­lenge if UK’S high streets to sur­vive

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - News - with John Simp­son @bel­tel_busi­ness

The demise of a num­ber of well­known high street re­tail out­lets has been a fea­ture of the busi­ness news and it is ex­pected to con­tinue. Clo­sures of BHS stores have left many town cen­tre shop fronts look­ing un­happy. In Belfast, once-thriv­ing stores such as Robin­son & Cleaver and C&A are now just a mem­ory.

Even the sur­viv­ing stores of Marks and Spencer and House of Fraser are parts of larger groups which are con­sol­i­dat­ing (or clos­ing) their less prof­itable out­lets elsewhere. And that’s be­fore we con­sider the im­pact in Belfast of the huge blaze at Pri­mark, which has re­sulted in a likely four-month shut­down for 14 shops.

The era of a bustling and ex­pand­ing high street with more mul­ti­ples, banks, build­ing so­ci­eties and many in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers has passed. Now, all of these types of out­let are de­creas­ing in num­ber. A quick walk in cen­tres will re­veal an in­creas­ing num­ber of cof­fee shops or other leisure based ac­tiv­i­ties.

Con­spic­u­ously, the cur­rent suc­cess sto­ries can be found in out of cen­tre or sub­ur­ban stores, where there is greater car park­ing con­ve­nience. Less con­spic­u­ously, some re­tail­ing is shift­ing to home de­liv­ery, as on-line shop­ping now of­fers a ready-made al­ter­na­tive.

The scale of the shift in cus­tomer de­mand has been con­sid­er­able. The sub­ur­ban lo­ca­tion of mul­ti­ples, to­gether with some link­age to in­de­pen­dent out­lets, prob­a­bly ac­counts for what was about 25+% of re­tail­ing in the Belfast com­muter re­gion.

The scale of online shop­ping is still in­creas­ing and across North­ern Ire­land may be de­flect­ing 10-15% of re­tail spend­ing. Out of the avail­able spend from house­hold in­comes, which have not been in­creas­ing sig­nif­i­cantly in real terms, there is an ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion that there is now ex­cess town and city cen­tre re­tail ca­pac­ity.

Empty shops in the ar­eas where shop­ping is less con­ve­nient are, un­hap­pily for land­lords, no sur­prise. The ar­rival of ‘char­ity shops’ with favourable con­ces­sions on rates bills is un­der­stood. They of­fer some al­ter­na­tive trad­ing ac­tiv­ity. To no sur­prise, there have been a se­ries of plain­tive re­ac­tions.

Ac­tion should be taken to en­sure the sur­vival of the high street. A re­duc­tion in the num­ber and va­ri­ety of re­tail out­lets is seen as having a se­ri­ous ad­verse ef­fect on the dy­namic of ur­ban cen­tres and, in­stinc­tively, ef­forts to main­tain, sup­port or en­cour­age the vi­a­bil­ity of town cen­tres are be­ing sought.

If, in the larger cen­tres, pos­si­bly up to 30% of the re­tail turnover that might have taken place has moved, there is a harsh re­al­ity to ac­cept.

Some of the most per­sis­tent re­sponses to the emerg­ing cri­sis in re­tail­ing in ur­ban cen­tres have fo­cused on ideas that might re­duce the oper­at­ing costs of con­tin­u­ing busi­nesses. This has taken var­i­ous forms. Most di­rectly, the ap­peal has been made to re­duce the rates bill in ar­eas where prof­itabil­ity has been re­duced.

Sec­ond, there have been sug­ges­tions that on-line re­tail­ing should pay higher charges, be­cause these ware­house stores have lower oper­at­ing costs (in the ab­sence of com­pa­ra­ble rates charges).

These sug­ges­tions to try to tip the bal­ance of ad­van­tage more to favour ur­ban cen­tres pose se­ri­ous prob­lems for Gov­ern­ment (if and when we have one).

Any sug­ges­tion that rates bills should be re­duced faces clear prob­lems. If the to­tal rev­enue from rates charges were to fall, what sys­tem of charges would re­place rates?

In the de­volved NI set­ting, within the Barnett for­mula, al­ter­na­tive sources of tax­a­tion on the same scale and in a form not having ad­verse con­se­quences are not eas­ily iden­ti­fied.

Could the dis­tri­bu­tion of rates bills be shifted to favour re­tail­ers against other con­trib­u­tors? Such a shift would chal­lenge the ba­sic prin­ci­ple that rates are de­fined by the po­ten­tial use of prop­erty as­sets. That is a use­ful base­line, neu­tral with re­spect to end use.

Then there is the chal­lenge of whether and how the shift to on-line re­tail­ing might be chal­lenged: not eas­ily.

Crit­i­cally, any new ideas must start from recog­ni­tion that re­tail­ing is chang­ing and the in­her­ited struc­tures must change.

Re­vi­tal­is­ing the ‘ high street’ is a ma­jor chal­lenge to the am­bi­tion of plan­ning of­fi­cials.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.