Has Rotherham turned a corner?
There has been lots of media interest around Mary Portas’ visit to Rotherham recently and it appears that great things have been happening there with the town team. In light of a blog I read this morning saying that LDC misrepresents the vacancy rate, I felt it appropriate to reply with what the field researched data tells me. Our field army last visited Rotherham in January, so the analysis that I am going to allude to is from then and not now. Rotherham, as many will know, has many challenges in common with other towns and cities up and down the country. A post industrial crisis of employment, proximity to a large metropolitan centre (Sheffield) and one of the largest retail parks in the country (Meadowhall) as well as Parkgate shopping Park and excellent road and rail connections. All of these factors applied to the new ‘total retail’ world where online leads, the recession impact of consumer spend and the increasing dominance of out of town retail and leisure ‘destinations’ make it challenging for town centres with their congestion, parking charges and the loss of anchor chain retailers. Rotherham is no exception and is reflected in its deprivation index (IMD) of 57, which makes it 20th in terms of the most deprived towns. When I look at the data we have been collecting since 2009 and especially the last 12 months it tells its own story which I will summarise here. In shop vacancy terms, where the national rate has reduced to 13.6%, Rotherham’s shop vacancy rate peaked in 2010 at 28.2% and has reduced to 21.7% in 2014. An improvement of 6.5% which is to be commended but still however, 7.9% above the national average. Out of 446 units that we track in the government’s defined core for Rotherham we identified 90 as being vacant (i.e. no business in occupation). Churn (openings and closures) is another KPI when I look at towns and for those of you who track our openings and closures reports you will see that the national trend has been for comparison goods (non perishable goods like shoes, clothes, books, mobile phones, electronics etc.) to be declining. For Rotherham, however, the last 12 months have seen comparison goods increase whilst convenience retail has remained stable but the two national growth areas of leisure and service have declined. Leisure and service retail are increasingly significant in terms of the health of a town. This number relates to net change but if I look at all openings and closures over the last 12 months then 41 comparison goods businesses have opened and closed, 32 leisure, 28 service and 8 convenience. Now what does this mean? Well change in many cases is good but my view here for Rotherham is that whilst the change is good and indicates action and change it is not happening in the right sectors and it is not improving the overall day and night time economy that destination towns need. With shopping centres having increased dwell times of up to 5 hours then towns need to fight back and achieve the same attractiveness to create increased dwell times. Increased dwell times = increased spend. You can also see from the image below that the rate of change is very different to the Rotherham area, the region and the country. So in conclusion it is very good to see the positive news around what Rotherham is doing and the energy and enthusiasm of the town team but what I would caution is that for sustainable health Rotherham must play to its strengths and create a balanced and sustainable retail, leisure and services offer to achieve the magnetism it deserves. There is much more that one can analyse and benchmark in terms of diversity, key retailers, gap analysis, type and quality of offer but this is not the place to write such a thesis. Understanding what is happening in Rotherham and applying it locally, regionally and nationally is a critical part of what any town team or council should be doing. Rotherham like many towns has too many shops and until a tighter more vibrant centre is achieved then vacancy will always be the blight it cannot escape.