Failing High Streets?

John Walls reports on a RTPI West of Scotland Chapter event on High Streets

 The Chapter enjoyed a well attended event on this topical issue – our Failing High Streets. John Lord, Director of Yellow Book Ltd, addressed the thrust of Mary Portas’ High Street Review in his presentation adding on his own insightful interpretations and perspectives.  Daniel McKendry, Principal Regeneration Officer, East Renfrewshire Council, then followed through with the successes and challenges encountered on establishing the West of Scotland’s first (and so far only) Business Improvement District.

 John Lord opened by stressing that town centres are human artifacts not a phenomenon.  He observed that the town centre as we tend to think of them came into their own in Victorian times and peaked around the 1950s and 60s.  With the great increase in car ownership and corresponding shifts in life styles, town centres have become an irrelevance to many a point he amplified in a number of ways; eg distance traveled by people increased fourfold  between1950 and 2009 but more significantly the distance traveled on buses had decreased by 50%.  The key change for most people is the reliance on the car.  The question for John then is, why are our town centres so important to us?

 John observed that household expenditure had increased two and a half times between 1971 and 2009. This is a reflection of greatly increased wealth.  The growth in expenditure resulted in a great increase in discretionary spending affecting the way people chose to spend their money.  Hence we saw the rise in supermarkets between 1950 and 2010, the rise in out of town centres post 1975 and more recently post 2000 a rise in internet sales.

 The result of these changes is the cause of the crisis on the High Street where many of stores lie vacant.  Bank branches have also been disappearing and some replacement has occurred with the return of bargain stores and charity shops.  Nonetheless the overarching effect blights the environment of our town centres.  This is not market failure but the operation of the market.

 Where do we go now? John Lord asked.  We now have local centres, town centres, city centres, edge of centre and out of town centres not to forget online sales.  What does the future hold?  Unfortunately there is no simple answer.  Solutions for different places will have to follow different paths.  The ranging affluence of town centre catchment areas has a strong bearing on what can be done.  But one of John’s key hard headed conclusions was, as planners we may have to contemplate letting some town centres go! This is real food for thought!

 Moving on Daniel Mckendry developed his Business Improvement District Theme.  He set the scene observing that East Renfrewshire is a wealthy suburb without particularly attractive historic centres.  Giffnock and Clarkston, for example are linear towns without much of a core and experience a lot of churn.  Of course, the presence of Silverburn, Braehead and Glasgow City Centre provide serious competition.

East Renfrewshire decided to explore Clarkston’s suitability for the BID model.  While the Portas’ review was published after the work was started, her recommendations tie in with the approach developed in Clarkston.  Local shop keepers were teaming up to fight the downturn and prepared to work with East Renfrewshire to tackle their problems.

Considering a Business Improvement District is a big ask for the local business community as it is essentially an additional local business tax.  The authority for BIDs is provided by the 2006 Planning Act and subsequent legislation and regulations.  It relates to a defined geographical area where businesses agree to work together and carry out collective local improvements.  If the overall business community vote is successful then all businesses pay.  Everyone pays, everyone gains – were the watchwords.  The BID operates for up to 5 years but can be recycled for a further 5 years.

Daniel highlighted the benefits of the BID for the business community – it improves transparency, it focuses on specific local issues, there is no red tape, it allows place based public/ private working, is flexible and all pay towards the improvements.

He acknowledged that the BID had been a hard sell in the current climate.  Daniel saw the benefits to local business as being the key buy-in factor.  However, different businesses have diverse agendas.  This requires to be sensitively managed and the outcomes need to be bespoke – one size could not fit all.  Winning the ballot was down to a collective positive understanding of the benefits the BID would bring.

The process of developing the BID was explained in some detail.  Daniel noted that the process normally took about 14 months but they had been able to cut it to 10 months in Clarkston.  He believed that balancing the needs of the bigger operators with those of the smaller operators was one of the keys to the success.  Useful support was given by BID Scotland.

Clarkston is the smallest BID in Scotland.  The levy is relatively high but only produces a small budget of £60,000.  Other schemes elsewhere in Edinburgh and Inverness are in six or seven figures.  With the low budget there is no dedicated full time manager.  Daniel added that the BID is highly reliant on the contribution from eager businesses.  He formally spends two days a week on the BID but has been known to do more from time to time.  The BID is also reliant on an intern.  However, Daniel noted that the existence of the BID allowed the Council to consider directing future investment towards Clarkston in a way which might not have been possible before.

Once the BID was established the initial effort went into branding Clarkston, including raising banners, organising an art festival and putting up Christmas Lights.  This has been followed through by preparing a ‘Mall Map’ showing boundaries and listing businesses, a leaflet drop in the neighbourhood, the identification of gateways to the precinct, the erection of information boards with businesses indexed, I love Clarkston T-Shirts, a special Christmas Lights Switch On event and extended hours of operation by the independent traders to match the major operators.  All this and more can be followed on the web.  (http://www.iluvclarkston.co.uk)

One of the intriguing outcomes is how the service sector have come round to see the advantages of the BID scheme.  Initially it was the retailers who were keenest.  However, a local solicitor has recently taken over the chair of the board.  She sees advantages in encouraging members to use local services rather than turn to Glasgow City Centre.  This can’t be bad.

These presentations were followed by a lively Q&A session.  This illustrated that the members had had a good night.

The success of this event was largely due to the excellent presentations by John Lord and Daniel McKendry for which the Chapter and its members are duly grateful.

John Walls

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