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Do all the elephants in the room have to be white?


Here I use my favourite new wildlife metaphor to challenge different narrow and vested interests to try and look at renewing the role of many of our town centres.

As with any subject, a narrow perspective can give valued insights and impassioned responses. But it can also fail to grapple the complexity of issues and create sustainable solutions. Using my metaphor; it is difficult to see the whole animal up-close or from just one angle. To fully appreciate the total picture, we need to know what the elephant looks like from a number of different angles.

SO….

Put aside for the moment whether you are a local shopkeeper; planner; politician, property manager, young resident or retired traveller. What are the qualities we are trying to conserve for future generations to enjoy in our town centres? These might include:

  • Economic: the livelihood, local economic contribution and variety provided by well-run local shops, attractions, services  and other businesses (what to do with the bad ones though?!)
  • Social: the central focus and function of the town centre as an attractive, enjoyable, convenient and sociable place to relax and do business (though many don’t score on all these fronts)
  • Urban Ecology: complementary roles and functions that add to rather than detract from what is on offer in neighbouring towns,  cities, shopping centres and attractions (unless you subscribe to survival of the fittest theories!).

AND….

As a starter how can we marry-up the different issues faced by towns to create joined-up and sustainable solutions from good service at the cheese counter to the global economy?  Some possible pairings:

Planning and Property: if we want the national chains as part of the mix within our towns and attracting footfall they need large, serviceable units. It caused a stir to begin with but I think Bury St Edmunds is one place that got it right. Town Centre First planning policy can help this happen and benchmarking will monitor trends.

Independents and Multiples: once the multiples are in town, both need each other if they are going to compete with out-of-town, cities and on-line shopping. And through concepts such as AMT’s ‘treat your town as a department store’ and re-investing spend through the MyCard loyalty scheme, retailers and councils have some of the tools to work together. Revitalised traditional, craft and food markets and festivals will help brings towns to life and draw people in.

Encouraging people to shop in independent retailers can help get people in to good habits… because remember, like a little puppy, town centres are not just for Christmas and can get old and ugly!

I think that is enough metaphors mixed for one blog. I feel a town centre summit coming on though! Does anyone else?

Except to say… maybe if we look from different angles, we will see that the elephant isn’t white after all!

To read more about your ‘Town as a Department Store’ and download AMT’s Town Centre Comeback report visit  http://towns.org.uk/2011/06/14/treat-your-town-as-a-department-store

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Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
13 years ago

Great comments Chris. Town centres need to consider selling overall experiences, so the incentive to be there becomes part of an overall day-out. Commodity shopping is sewn up by the larger out-of-town/edge of town ‘beige-shed’ locations. So town centres need to be encouraged to become hubs of cultural events, artisan outlets, pop-up community-art work-shops, coffee/music/mornings. I’m sure many would argue they are, but I personally still feel more needs to be done (especially in failing centres) to make more of the centre as a place for recreational ‘visitor experiences’; and not just a ‘race to the bottom’ for lower value retail outlets? Thoughts?

Chris Wade
Chris Wade
13 years ago

Absolutely Rupert! And where people will come back to buy everyday goods another day.

Otherwise won’t some of our town centres also become places to buy “what everybody wants…but nobody needs”?!

Nick Posford
Nick Posford
13 years ago

Though I do appreciate your insights and certainly think it is a discussion worth having, I remain unconvinced about the multiple/independents mix. The issue I have is that multiples have such advantages because of their size, power, marketing etc. that they can (not inevitable, though scant evidence of a reversal thus far) end up dominating the high street and driving out (along with many other reasons) the smaller, more bespoke, more specialist but ultimately (I think) more valuable businesses. It is the nature of any business to focus on profits and growth, but the consequences when multiples do so seem to be an irreversible decline in independents. (If you have evidence of schemes and places that have reversed any such trends, I’d be very keen to hear, as that is precisely what I would like to see happen in Oxford!)

Of course, first and foremost, consumers need to better understand what is in it for them when they take their custom to independents. The consumer has immense power and in the end, more than any other force (councils, business groups, politicians etc), they can influence how their town centres develop and change over time. But it seems ever more difficult for the independents to be front of mind when consumers are making decisions because of the overwhelming bombardment (I use the phrase intentionally) of the multiples marketing campaigns and their ubiquitousness!

Add into the mix the issues with planning and the law and the much meatier resource that the multiples have and the ingredients do seem to make for a frightening prospect. I appreciate that they are just doing what any business does – trying to increase profits and custom – but they have an unfair advantage because of their size.

That said, it is great these discussions are happening and anecdotally, perhaps, increasingly so. Maybe over time, the consumer mindset can be changed and then less effort would be needed to sway local authority bureaucracy, landlords and other stakeholders who influence the development of town centres.

Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
13 years ago

These are very valid points Nick, especially on the pricing out of certain prime areas (or indeed within more affluent areas). My direct experience (northern mill towns – blog’s are accent free eh!) is that many streets were already starting to show signs of decline long before the recession. With whole streets (typically peripheral ones) given over to charity shops or boarded up. Surely joint initiatives between local public, private, and social partnerships could be more savvy an commission work similar to here: http://www.artistsandmakers.com/staticpages/index.php/emptyshops
Another thought however, is that most multiples will increasingly have to think about how they add value to their offer. With ‘amazonification’ (a new term?) of shopping, even the big high street multiples are starting to quake a little (look at HMV et al). Perhaps when some of the multiples shake out of the high street, it may be time to rethink how we really use town centre space, mixing art, coffee, entertainment, retail and perhaps more residential? – More ‘eyes on the street’ perhaps as the fabulous Jane Jacobs once put it?

Dan Thompson
Dan Thompson
13 years ago

An interesting debate. I think we need to stop thinking of retail as some kind of spectrum, going from ‘independent’ to ‘multiple’ – as they’re completely different things. There’s an assumption that growth is all; plenty of independents are happy to tick along at a certain level. Let’s help them do what they want to do. the way they want to do it. Hobby, leisure and lifestyle businesses are no bad thing.

Town centres need a mix of things that keep people interested, entertained and engaged with the community. Independents and multiples can both add to that; as can pop-up shops, temporary projects, cultural festivals and all the other stuff Rupert mentions.

Finally; I’m not a local shopkeeper; planner; politician, property manager, young resident or retired traveller. I’m a bit of everything; shopper, resident, dad, place maker, artist, renegeration amateur, architecture buff, festival organiser, former shopkeeper. Perhaps if we stop thinking of ourselves as one thing at a time, and accept our many-hat-edness, we’ll be better at planning and delivering cohesive, integrated town centres?

Rupert Greenhalgh
Rupert Greenhalgh
13 years ago

Just before the week ends – blog readers here may like to attend a CLES ‘Think-time’ event coming up in July on a related theme. Here’s a link:
http://newstartmag.co.uk/eventstraining/town-centres-in-perilwhat-can-we-do/

Mike Scantlebury
Mike Scantlebury
12 years ago

But where is the ‘city centre’? Salford City Council seems to have decided they can safely shift the emphasis to Salford Quays and make that our city’s new ‘centre’.
Well, OK it’s got the BBC and it’s got a Designer Outlet, but coffee bars do not a ‘centre’ make.
Besides, where do they get off calling Salford Quays ‘Media City’? Don’t they know that ALL of Salford is a ‘media city’. Local residents are making media, every day.

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