Blog: 5 March 2019The challenge of addressing the ‘Retail’ problem

Andrew Woodrow

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Andrew Woodrow

Planning Associate

Glasgow office

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I have fond memories of shopping the 80s and early 90s. Visiting the Wimpy restaurant on Paisley High Street for a burger after an exciting trip to Moss Street’ Pitcher Sports to buy Patrick football boots and shin pads for my short-lived footballing career at Bishopton United. Or heading to the Kelburne Cinema on Glasgow Road to watch the latest release.

Back then Paisley had a real buzz about it. It was the place to be. The big ‘city’ in my eyes and the place I could get everything I needed. Little did I know just how things would change, either in the retailing world of Paisley or my interest in the subject. Why would I? Sport was how I going to make my living.

Fast-forward to 2019 I’m not a professional footballer (shock horror) but more importantly, our high streets are in crisis. Empty shops are increasingly appearing in what were once ‘must-have’ locations. High street units or shopping centres where landlords could previously charge what they wanted in rent, knowing that as soon as one anchor store left, another would sail straight in. The reliance upon the draw of ‘big retail’ is now a major issue for town centres across the UK, as traditional anchor tenants, such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and, slightly less-so, M&S and John Lewis, all face financial challenges.

The formula to boost footfall adopted to date, through the hosting events, bringing in markets and pop-up shops has helped to some extent but does, as things continue to worsen need a re-think. Specifically, because this approach, in my mind, simply doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problem and the fact that ‘we’, as a society, are lazy. When it comes to buying things, we want it now, preferably without leaving the house. And if we have to leave the house, then we don’t want to travel far to get it or pay for parking nearby. The retailers know this only too well.



So how do we address the problem? Recent Government thinking is to level the playing field through the introduction of an online retailer tax. Admittedly that would help balance the public purse at least, but I doubt it would get more of us pounding the streets with our bag for life. Online retailing moves so fast. I don’t doubt there will be new formats found in a matter of years (if not months) to counter this approach, while an online tax is also likely to impact on those retailers who have a presence in both formats, which could in turn impact upon their whole business. Companies being taxed at both ends, in the real and virtual worlds isn’t going to be a recipe for success.

Do our town centres instead need to potentially reduce in size? Are they too big for the role they now hold? Having said that, no authority wants to be the one that reduces the size of their town centre boundary or their retail core -and therefore their rateable income!

But there almost certainly does need to be a realisation that town centres are not purely retail hubs. An increase in residential accommodation might allow a more focussed retail core, but also more vibrant day and night time economies. By providing a good mixture of size and tenure, we avoid ‘student ghettos’ or build to rent apartment frenzies and instead drive occupation of those who crave an urban lifestyle, no matter what their age or family size.   

This isn’t just about residential though. With Permitted Development Rights south of the border seeing some prime office sites becoming residential space, it’s also a good time for shopping centres and town centre landlords to consider turning some of their empty A-class into B-class. While footfall won’t increase dramatically, it would introduce potential high-volume purchasers to the town centre who appreciate the convenience of the central location and add more consistent vibrancy throughout the day. Something the latest Centre for Cities report touches on.

Creating desirable, flexible office space in key centres would also allow businesses of all sizes to potentially flourish, in locations where public transport connections are good, opportunities to network, collaborate and share their successes with their local business community are greater. All important aspects for smart towns and cities of the future.

While footfall maybe dropping, the town centre isn’t flat lining quite yet, and with the right mixture of development, that’s carefully planned to complement that around it, I personally believe town centres can and will flourish again. But then I also still think I could still be a professional footballer…

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Retail, Town Centres, Centre for Cities Report