Why no more Bluewaters, Eric?

December 10, 2013

Eric Pickles is one of the Conservative’s star performers. The softly-spoken Yorkshireman won a number of important policy victories last week. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement included a raft of measures to revitalise high streets up and down the country. Business rates were capped at two per cent. Tax relief was offered to retailers taking on empty premises. As a former leader of Bradford council, Pickles is in a better position than most to know how important such measures are, especially to small and medium size businesses trying to compete with the rise in online shopping and large, out of town retail parks.

Supporting high streets is a vitally important and commendable mission and I wholeheartedly praise the Communities Secretary for pushing such important measures through especially with the backing of local people. Which is why I was somewhat surprised to read the following quote attributed to Pickles in today’s Daily Telegraph.

“The time of the big retail park, your Bluewater or your Lakeside…I don’t see us being able to accommodate anything very similar in the future.”

Pickles’s argument is that local people don’t have enough say over out of town developments, suggesting that these major retail parks are making it harder for small, independent shops to compete on our high streets.

Unfortunately, what he failed to mention is how successful Bluewater, Lakeside, Bicester Village and other “malls”  have become. Take Bluewater itself. It has 330 shops – from designer outlets to bargain stores. There are 13,000 free parking spaces ,so there’s no need to worry about racing out of the fitting room to put another £3 into the machine before some over-excited parking attendant meets his weekly target by slapping a £60 fine on your windscreen. There are 50 restaurants in Bluewater. It’s open from 9am until 11pm on most days – so you can make that last minute dash to buy Aunty Joan’s anti-wrinkle cream Christmas present. My point is that out of town centres are successful and popular, because they cater to how the majority of people prefer to shop, if they decide not to do all their shopping with a few clicks of the mouse.

Pickles also omits the fact that out-of-town retail parks are already at a disadvantage. Town Centre First, a policy introduced in the mid-1990s, was intended to support the high street by limiting out-of-town shopping centres. It has, however, decreased competition between retailers, and damaged the social fabric of many communities, especially outside the South East. For example, between 2000 and 2009, 15,000 smaller town centre-stores closed, despite the policy.

A recent Policy Exchange paper found that discriminating against out-of-town outlets also pushes up prices. This is particularly damaging for low income households. Academic studies show Town Centre First causes productivity losses of between 25 per cent and 45 per cent due to restrictions on the size of a store, its configuration and its location. A 25 per cent loss in productivity in just food and clothes alone cuts the average household income by at least three per cent – or around £1,000 a year. The real cost across all goods and services will be even higher.

Politicians at all levels need to face up to reality. People use different shops for different reasons. On pay day someone might want to buy that exclusive designer suit from the boutique tailor on the high street. After Christmas, that same person might feel more hard up and decide a trip to the out of town retail park which has a wider range of cheaper shops is a better option. Simply trying to dictate whether a shop should be on the high street or in a mall is counter productive.

So what could be done to revitalise some of our ailing high streets instead of focusing on limiting new out of town destinations? Well, one radical solution would see councils which preside over poorly run high streets, but which have the potential to flourish, have their powers removed and transferred to management companies consisting of people with retail experience.

These companies would effectively replicate the way large out-of-town or in-town outlets (such as Westfield) are now run, taking over key decisions on issues such as parking, wi-fi facilities, change of use and the location of ATMs and public toilets. Retail destinations need to be attractive, well-run social hubs in order to retain customers. We have to acknowledge that in some cases, councillors are simply ill-equipped to breathe life back into failing high streets. If that is the case, then local experts could offer an alternative.

Other high streets are badly located, lacking consumer demand and have little chance in being able to compete with the internet and other retail destinations. In these instances the local council should allow empty shops to be converted into housing. This would help deliver new housing, especially for younger people trying desperately to get a foot on the property ladder. New residents living in the centre of towns would require goods and services so the remaining high streets shops would benefit from a boom in potential customers.

I’ll finish this article where I begun.  Pickles is a star performer. His view that local people should have a much greater say on local development – housing, roads, shops – is spot on. However, a response to failing high streets that limits competition and prevents people from jumping in the car with the family and spending a day in Bluewater or Lakeside is the antithesis to empowering local people. More radical measures are needed that truly respond to what people want.

This article originally appeared on ConservativeHome

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