Retail and local centres

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Extending Localisation – retail and local centres

The summary below is part of the exploratiry report produced in 2008-9.

Negative trends

  • Retail plays an essential role in a localised supply chain of food and other goods; ‘walkable’ retail builds social inclusion and reduces the need for the car; social capital and local multiplier are stronger in a town centre full of independent shops, and local distinctiveness is another benefit.
  • A centralising trend in all retail and particularly food: 80% of our grocery spending goes to the supermarkets .
  • Knock on negative impact on supply chain: local independent shops are more likely to use local suppliers (certainly for food and other common products) and many supplying wholesalers and manufacturers are going out of business.
  • Local money circulation is decreased by the prevalence of chain stores that use more centralised suppliers.
  • Out of town supermarkets kill off the shops that are within walking distance for many without access to a car, often creating food desert.
  • UK Competition Commission views the preservation of ‘independent shops’ as a genre as being akin to preserving specific retailers. Even within the food sector the Commission seems to be happy for food provision to rest solely on the big four supermarket chains.
  • Supermarket impact assessments are conducted by consultants chosen by the applicant, so that it is in the consultant’s interests (of getting further work) to present a report that shows no negative impact on the viability of the shopping centre. See Shirley example below.
  • In Dudley on the opening of Merry Hill, and in Birmingham on the opening of the Bullring, and countless other instances across the region, on the opening of the out or edge of town shopping centre the chain stores relocate into it, leaving vacancies on the high street. This impacts on the viability of any area as a shopping centre for local people, as a living for traders, and in terms of the non-shopping facilities of the centre. Exacerbating the problem it leads to competitions between centres to be shopping destinations.
  • A trend also to centralise other local centre facilities, from swimming pools to schools, with similar impacts on social exclusion and increasing traffic.

Positive trends, good practice and opportunities

  • Some urban areas, often with high Asian populations (e.g. Sparkhill, Birmingham) have thriving local retail scenes for food, clothing, appliances and many other goods; which although the area might technically be deprived gives it a strong local multiplier and food access. Local competition is also healthy in these areas.
  • Some market towns in further corners of the region (such as Bishops Castle, Leominster) have thriving local retail, perhaps because their locations discourage centralised distribution networks.
  • Planning policy has at least recognised the negative impacts of out-of-town shopping centres, – but still permits supermarkets at edge locations where the impact can be similar.
  • Localise WM conducted an independent community and retail impact assessment of a proposed mixed use development (including supermarket ‘anchor store’ in Shirley, West Midlands, on behalf of the local Town Centre Partnership. This was criticised as ‘premature’ (i.e., they hadn’t done theirs yet) by the developer but endorsed by the Retail Enterprise Network .
  • Town centre shipment points – a ‘central point’ distribution model proposed by the TCPA to make delivery into the centre easier and less disruptive.
  • Lewes in East Sussex protected independents by the indirect measure of restrictions in shop floor sizes: smaller units are less likely to appeal to many chain stores .
  • A recent mixed use development in Wolverhampton by AM Developments kept to traditional streetscape and ensured that a full range of unit types, sizes and prices was available with the explicit intention of having a full mixture of retail types including independents.
  • Birmingham’s Shopeasy scheme, set up by the Chamber of Commerce in response to the threat to local independent food shops, addresses three aims: improve the quality of retailing, revive local areas and empower retailers. It provides training and a “Symbol Group” scheme for small corner shops, and advice in retail management, marketing and customer relations. The Black Country and other Chambers of Commerce have considered replicating this.
  • In Sandwell a scheme called Shopwell supports around 50 retailers in the training and skills they need to stock affordable and attractive fresh produce, to combat ‘food desert’ syndrome and support the viability of the local retailers. Target locations came from food access mapping data. This came out of a healthy food access approach but takes a long-term view of how healthy diets are supported in the community and recognises the importance of the local shop to that goal.
  • The Retail Enterprise Network runs a programme called Agora, which aims to empower local communities in predominantly deprived areas to manage their town or district centres using sustainable social enterprise management models. It will create enterprises considered vital to the sustainability of those communities, such as local food supply chains and community services, thereby reversing economic decline and ensuring the district centre is run for the benefit of all its local stakeholders. One of Agora’s eight pilot towns is Ludlow in Shropshire.
  • Ludlow is also a “Cittaslow” town, in which the principles of the Slow Food Movement are applied to town centres. A Cittaslow signs up to working towards a set of goals that aim to improve quality of life and protect local distinctiveness. It is “about avoiding the ‘sameness’ that afflicts too many towns in the modern world”. Cittaslow limits membership to populations under 50,000, so larger towns, where such an approach is equally if not more crucial, are excluded. Cittaslow UK is funded by Advantage West Midlands.
  • Some areas including Leominster have started their own local shop loyalty card scheme, usually in response to a new supermarket. Loyalty cards tend to work as short-term profile-raisers but can catalyse the recovery of a town centre according to retail specialists at Surrey University.
  • Community owned village shops: particularly essential services in rural areas, there are 4 community owned shops in Herefordshire, 3 in Shropshire and 2 in Warwickshire. The Village Retail Services Association supports and promoted community owned village shops and feels this role should be undertaken by government bodies at all levels.

Potential recommendations

  • Investigate how what makes local shops thrive in some market towns might be replicable in other contexts.
  • Promote relevant authorities to support a town centre management model that is community-led and involves a variety of sizes of business and supply chain links within and without the community, perhaps learning from the Agora project if REN is willing.
  • Promote an understanding of a healthy mix of independents and chains to the Competition Commission and other bodies.
  • Investigate a Cittaslow model for cities if the benefits are in evidence.