SHOPPING is right at the top of most people’s ‘to do’ list right now with the Christmas countdown nearing an end.
Retail matters are also on my mind following the publication of Mary Portas’ review into the future of the High Street economy.
For the uninitiated, this new report makes a series of recommendations about how to revive town centre shopping.
These include cutting regulations for traders, creating new ‘town teams’ responsible for developing business in the area, and having more affordable town centre car parking.
I wrote to Mary Portas to outline Oldham Council’s view of these challenges shortly after this review was announced.
As a starting point, I welcome this as an opportunity to take stock of where we are and identify constructive measures to help revitalise High Streets.
We’ve also bid into a scheme linked to this with the British Council of Shopping Centres. This would see some of the Portas recommendations piloted in a handful of ‘reference sites’ across the country to assess their impact.
If our bid is successful, such a scheme is likely to spark some additional interest in Oldham from retailers – so fingers crossed on that one.
The Portas report itself is, obviously, correct in its assessment that all town centres, including Oldham, are struggling in the face of growing competition from out-of-town retail sites and internet shopping.
The report is also right when it says that tackling this change represents a major strategic problem for all concerned.
However, I look forward to contributing further to this review in 2012 because – whilst there are measures and findings in the initial report which I firmly agree with – I also think more consultation with Councils would have been hugely beneficial.
Some of the recommendations made here are ones that I, and many other Local Authority leaders, believe are simply not realistic enough about the issues we are facing.
I don’t think, for example, that the report at all grasps the sheer power that a handful of ‘anchor retailers’ – like Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, and Debenhams – hold over our High Streets.
These players hold incredible power and influence over the market.
If your town centre does not have them, then it will simply never be full – it will always have vacant units. This is a stark reality which I believe hasn’t been fully recognised here, and it is clearly part of the problem.
The Portas report also recommends that Councils remove regulations around market stalls to make it easier for people to become market traders.
My fear with this is that it could be counterproductive by helping to nurture a ‘Del Boy’ economy on our High Street.
Consumers need a basic level of assurance and confidence about who they are trading with and the quality of the goods they are buying.
This would put that under threat and potentially even discourage people from spending in our town centres. It would also encourage rogue traders who – worst of all – prey upon and take advantage of cash-strapped families.
The Portas report also recommends cuts in business rates to encourage more retail into the town centre.
Business rates are calculated by multiplying the rateable value of a property by a ‘multiplier’ that is set nationally by the Government.
Simply slashing them across the board will only serve to further benefit out-of-town sites which are much more attractive to retailers because they will remain cheaper – and they are easier to build upon.
All of which brings me on to my final point.
We are willing as a Council to do whatever we can to help the High Street. Indeed, we moved fast to introduce free-parking on Saturdays, in line with what the report recommends, to attract shoppers back to the town centre.
However, what this report doesn’t examine is what all these suggested measures would cost Local Authorities.
We could, for example, make all market rents cost a pound, and make all our car parking free forever – but with that comes a significant impact on your revenue. How do you then decide which library or care home has to shut down as a result?
Local Authorities aren’t just responsible for town centres. Whilst their viability and strength is key, it can not sit in splendid isolation from all our other duties to local communities.
I think the Portas report could go much further. In its present form it appears to simply blame councils for the decline of the High Street without empowering us to actually tackle the issues head on.
The solutions will require serious partnership working and investment across the board – and residents also have a crucial role to play.
A ‘fixed’ town centre would, of course, be one with much greater footfall and a wider shopping offer that enables people to purchase more of their general needs, plus specialist goods.
If we could achieve that in Oldham we would have every major retailer fighting to just have a presence here.
But, as the Portas report rightly says, a sense of ‘belonging’ to your local high street is also fast-diminishing.
That is a major part of the problem and it’s why I am again, unashamedly, urging residents reading this to ‘Shop Local’ – and to spread that message.
Our free car parking scheme continues in the town centre on Saturdays until January 14. We’re already evaluating its impact and the options include considering whether to extend or change the scheme in 2012, so watch this space for news on that front.
By opting to spend your cash in Oldham, and in your district centres, you can actually make a huge impact on the future viability of your own High Street.
Please consider that again in the frantic final few days of festive shopping and – above all – have a fantastic Christmas with your family and friends.
Thanks for listening,