Future Towns

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting to the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium event on Future Towns held at Sadler’s Wells in London. I was but one of a number of keynote presenters which were interspersed with case studies for the consortium’s geographical area of interest. The audience numbered about eighty and was in the main public sector with a few retailers and academics.

The event was ably chaired by Greg Clark, Chair of the LSCC, who I recently came across when I spoke at the British BIDs conference, as he was also the chair then.

Bill Grimsey, who led the Grimsey Review, which I was part of, kicked off the day on the subject of Town centres, what are they for? How can we make them deliver better for the people of the UK? Much of what Bill covered can be followed up in the review, which you can download here. Bill’s key points for me were that it is ‘not who says what but who does what’. Sadly politics and personalities get in the way of very good messages and both Bill and Mary Portas have some powerful messages, albeit from different standpoints which makes them all the more important. Having been involved with both I can tell you that they are both committed, energized and people of action who have put their heads above the parapet to do what is right.

The day was Cyber Monday where it was predicted that £1.3bn would be spent online! That figure may be lower in light of the RBS card issues experienced by many last night as they tried to achieve this monumental sum. A number of retailers were offering online discounts of 30% and two that came into my inbox were Timberland and Banana Republic – US retailers with global reach.

A key point from the Grimsey Review is the need for towns to have economic blueprints as what gets managed gets done and with any business you need a plan with measurable and achievable objectives – how many towns have this? From the Grimsey Review sample it was less than 50% of those who replied to the FOI requests. Business rates is another key area that Bill mentioned and there is a petition on this subject you can sign on the 10 Downing Street website. The latest Distressed Towns Task Force report and the BRC are calling for a 2% cap on next year’s proposed increase of 3.8%. A cap at 2% will give a saving of £1.3bn to the big retailers. Bill reflected the scale issue (66% of retailers in unit terms are independents), which is that this equates to a saving of over £8,000 for every large retailer and a couple of hundred pounds for the independents. The current business rates system is not broken but needs to be used properly and part of this should be CPI and not RPI increases, reinstatement of the 2015 revaluation and instigate annual revaluations. The investment market does quarterly valuations so surely annual is possible in the era of 21st century technology. Bill noted that whilst Brandon Lewis (and he did later) mentions the 300,000 businesses not paying any business rates the thing that is not mentioned is that the Minister himself has admitted that it is the retail sector who is hardest hit and a net loser with the current policy. This is something that has not come out loud and clear and it is the one thing that every occupier on the high street cites as their biggest issue for survival – 20,000 retailers are cited as at risk (liabilities outweigh their assets) according to Company Watch. The other big question was – is it right that the British Retail Consortium (the voice of large retailers) is employing Ernst & Young to do a root and branch review of the business rates system? Surely it is for government to do this and decide on policy and taxation.

We then heard from the London Borough of Waltham Forest (Shifa Mustafa) on their transformation of Leyton High Road pre the Olympics. This was a very impressive project where essentially the council gave 100% grants to whole streets to transform their appearance externally with whole buildings being painted and hoardings replaced in return for commitment to maintain this and to adhere to a number of preconditions such as street furniture (A boards) removal etc. The ability to transform a street visually is very powerful but of course you can’t judge a book by its cover. The cost for most areas is also prohibitive as overall £850m of public money was spent along with £300m of private partnership. A significant sum! My thoughts on this are that many multiple retailers have a big focus on refurbishments of existing stores and many would no doubt be willing to co-ordinate these refurbishments so that a significant number could all happen with a three month period which would have a significant visual impact and uplift for visitors and would undoubtedly improve footfall and sales.

I then spoke about the facts and figures of what is happening in our town centres. I looked at two key areas – vacancy rates and occupational changes including churn rates and location profiling of current and historical anchor tenants for our high streets. All change is the message. I also revealed a new figure, which was that in the last three years across the top 650 town centres in GB that there were a total of 143,960 store openings and closures. The net result of these changes was positive overall at a net increase in numbers of 940 (+0.49%) but when broken down into independents and multiples there was a big difference. Multiple retailers declined by 1,741 (-2.35%) and independents increased by 2,681 (+2.28%). I also covered off the importance of diversity in town centres and referred to the diversity index we built with Oxford University earlier this year.

We then heard from Julie Grail of British BIDs who spoke as eloquently and robustly as ever with the facts and figures behind the success of the 160+ BIDs around the country. I will say no more as a previous post covered the BIDs conference and what they do. The interesting point was that BIDs are evolving fast from place management and marketing to place shaping, which is what towns need.

Ilford were next up talking about how well the council and BID work together and the successes that result. A good example of public-private partnership it seems. The other good element was that this council has a plan and it appears to be working so there are examples of good practice that others should have to follow. With Westfield Stratford and Lakeside on their doorstep Ilford realized early on that they had to be proactive in managing the changing profile of their town and they appear to be doing this and doing it well. A quick look at Ilford through the eyes of the LDC dashboard show that it is on the up!

Finally we heard from Brandon Lewis, the High Streets Minister. He spoke of the various initiatives happening up and down the country and of a High Streets renewal fund (£8m?). He utilized a number of case studies from his trip to Dartford at the weekend to planning in Cockermouth and indeed his own town of Great Yarmouth also featured. The one thing that surprised me was that the Portas Review got a fleeting mention and that no reference was made to the Grimsey Review (Bill Grimsey was sitting but yards from him), The Centre for Cities report or the Distressed Towns Task Force report which came out on Friday. A lost opportunity in my view as if I was a government minister then the more contributors the better – like the conductor of a great orchestra with lead musicians in each section!

Another interesting point the Minister made was about pushing for more parking in town centres and that government has launched a consultation document on parking enforcement. I was at a meeting with a west midlands council last week and they have a great system in place until Christmas, which is 20p for three hours parking in the town centre. For the council, however, the downside is that this parking incentive is losing them £6,800 in parking revenue each week which over three months (12 weeks) is £81,600 so you can understand in the current climate why councils are loathe to lose parking income.

A very good point, that Mr Lewis made, which is often missed or misunderstood in my view, is that the customer should decide and not government. This is so true and Steve Jobs of Apple realised this many years ago when he said ‘you have to start with the customer and work back’ – we all talk about doing this, LDC included, but how many actually live or die by it?

During questions I asked the Minister about how Government is planning to measure the large number of excellent and expensive initiatives (I estimate this at £25m+) that are happening as coming back to the start of this blog and accepted practice – what gets measured gets done! His answer surprised me in that the Government has paid the town centre managers organization (ATCM) over £1m to mentor and support town teams and Mr Lewis said that he was also asking them to propose how they can demonstrate ROI on this investment. Surely this cannot be right that a Government funded contract has not measurable objectives attached to it and that the organization financed to deliver is then also asked to set the success parameters of that engagement.  As someone noted at the conference it sounds very like the FSA! I am totally apolitical in this respect but this surely cannot be considered as good practice or right. This is public money after all!

So it was a good morning where many topics were covered but the one area that a number of people commented on is there is talk of all these tools and policies available to local authorities but many of them are either not aware of them, do not have access to them (such as LDC and other data) or do not believe/want to implement them.

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