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Retail park good/bad, high street bad/good

Interesting piece in the Retail Gazette today, titled Is Retail Heading Out of Town?

It highlights a couple of conflicting and sometimes contradictory pressures:

1. Retailers are now seeing sales densities in retail parks that are as strong as in high streets.  This is unsurprising.  A retail park store is an ideal space in which to create and replicate your company’s preferred store model.  It’s far easier to build a modern, productive interior space within a standard-sized box than dealing with the inevitable compromises that every high street site throws up.  On the retail park, your only real worry is adjacency.  If the tenant mix is right for your business, you can fly.

However, there is a conflict between the great internal environment, and the soulless nature of the parks themselves.  They are machines for shopping in, and – of course – they contribute to sucking the trade from local high streets.

This doesn’t mean that residents don’t like them.  They’re typically located on major roads, with free or cheap parking, and essentially provide a multibrand competitive offer for the Tesco/Asda/Sainsbury hypermarket.

So, local residents are ambivalent about them.  They’ll shop at the retail park, whilst at the same time regretting the fact that their high street isn’t as strong as it once was.  This is classic “if only other people behaved the way they should, then I would have the choice I want” behaviour.

The planning regime has been antipathetic towards new retail parks for some years, having made the error of granting so many “open A1” consents back in the 80s when no one had conceived of anything other than bulky goods being sold out of these spaces.  Around the turn of the century, the Pillar property group (now part of British Land) did an excellent job of smartening up and repositioning retail parks for fashion and general retailers, using their “Fort” model in many locations across the country.  These often included cinemas and restaurants, but a straightforward retail offer was sufficient for most shoppers.  Retailers like Next and Boots were in the vanguard of park evolution, and many of Borders’ most successful stores were on the parks.

2.  However, all the time, communities have a niggling belief that something is wrong – as the Orpington example in the piece underlines.  Orpington High Street is now the land that time forgot; however, the park provides access to many retailers who otherwise wouldn’t be in Orpington at all.

Everyone wants vibrant high streets at the centre of their community, in the same way that they want good schools and hospitals.  However, whereas the latter are the responsiblity of local and central government – and will fundamentally remain so, however the current round of changes plays out, the high street is a commercial space, subject to planning laws, but otherwise a simple function of market forces.

I was talking recently to a European businessman who wanted to know whether certain retail categories were afforded special privileges – lower taxes, planning derestrictions – in order to ensure that, for instance, everyone had access to a good bookshop.  My hollow laughter has now faded, and it is interesting to speculate what the impact of Eric Pickles’ localisation programme will be.  Personally, I am all for greater control of local taxation at local level, and the opportunity this might create for local councils (and by extension local people) to determine the regime that they wish to apply.  Quite how Eric envisages this working without deteriorating into endless legal actions from big retailers who belive they are being penalised, or treated inconsistently, remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, I do like the sound of that fluffy, nebulous Big Society thing, and I do believe that the best way to test it is to localise as much policy-making as is possible.  And I’d probably prefer to see the battleground on the high street, rather than in A&E.  Politicians will, however, have to ensure that they are reflecting the real (as opposed to opinion poll) wishes of local people.

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