Pressure on the High Street?

It was not just the fact that HMV announced that it was going into administration that caused me to reflect about the state of British high streets. A few weeks ago, I also took a stroll through Broomhill, in Sheffield, where a countless number of shops had closed and a local coffeehouse was being turned into a Costa. Additionally, I found out my great granddad’s pub had closed down. The stark message appears to be that the high street is slowly dying. What is to blame for this morbid future of town centres?

The changes on our high streets have been accelerated by the economic downturn from 2007 onwards, and probably worsened by the economic policies of George Osborne. However, the long-term cause lies in a much broader shift in consumer culture that has moved from the high street towards larger, out-of-town shopping centres and towards the Internet. Earlier this month, in addition to HMV, we have seen Jessops and Blockbuster go into administration. This follows a number of other businesses including: Woolworth’s, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Optical Express and so on. This is a very small and selective list, but it shows that there are a wide variety of shops that are closing down. More generally, the number of town centre stores fell by almost 15,000 between 2000 and 2009 with an estimated further 10,000 losses over the past couple of years. [1] Without doubt, traditional high streets are in decline, which has seen the emergence of ‘ghost towns’ and ‘clone towns’ across Britain. [2] It means that, first, our high streets are dying and, second, those that remain all look the same, with a generic number of national outlets.

There are those that have little qualms about the decline of shopping in town centres; if anything, ‘clone towns’ have made shopping more convenient (you know what you’re getting from your Starbucks and your H&M wherever you are across the country), and better still, online shopping means you don’t even need to leave the house (hush about the tax avoidance from the likes of Amazon.co.uk though). Ultimately, however, high streets do matter. This is not just about nostalgia for an age of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; this is about a vibrant local economy (although I do love a good cake). The problem is that national retailers suck out economic capital in town centres and take it straight back to their headquarters. Rarely do profits return to the local economy. The growth of tax avoiding retailers has further reduced the tax base for investment, which is further exacerbating the problem. Whether town and city centres are labelled ghost towns or clone towns, it damages the local economy. Communities become dependent on state-led investment, something which would be less likely in a locally independent economy where small- and medium-sized businesses work interdependently. [3]

A more fundamental point, however, is that British high streets are about public space. The space of the town centre is becoming marginalised and soulless – which may sound rather fuzzy, but is based on the idea of social capital. The problem facing our high streets has surpassed retail. It is also about our ability as citizens to contribute to the public spaces we occupy, which suggests that we need to reclaim town and city space. In other words, strong town and city centres matter because they contribute towards a dynamic economy, and they also help to strengthen and maintain a sense of social capital. We must recognise that the role of high streets has changed from a pre-dominant retail role towards one that should emphasise a social one. It entrenches a sense of belonging and localism, which is preached by both the main parties in their own ways [4]. As Jan Gehl points out:

Wanting to go into town is different from wanting or needing to shop. It is about an experience. It is about sociability and relaxation, creativity and being part of something you cannot get at home or work. [5]

To echo the points made by Mary Portas’ independent review from 2011, high streets should be bustling with people, services and jobs. They should be vibrant places that people choose to visit. They should be destinations. This is not about nostalgia – it is about social capital and sustainable economic growth.

The question, therefore, revolves around how we can improve the confidence and strength of high streets. ‘Localism’ has become a key word for this to happen. Local councils have always been marginalised in the British political system, for a range of reasons that go beyond this article’s remit. The broad point, however, is that local politics must matter to people; and the best way to do this is to empower local councils. [6] Local councils need to be at the heart of local decision-making, which includes the local economy – something which has been hoarded by central government for too long. Councils need to think more creatively about parking spaces, improving public transport and improving consultation with local businesses. The success of Business Improvement Districts is one important development (mechanisms where local businesses contribute to joint business plans), which demonstrates that working together is an important dynamic of the future. [7]

In terms of economic policies, a number of choices are available:

  • First, the model of business rates is out-dated and out of proportion. For example, the business rates for an ASOS distribution centre in Barnsley is around £40 per square metre; for a unit in a Rochdale shopping centre, this is £1,080 per square metre. This has led one commentator to question if business rates are taxing the high street out of existence. Business rates need to change.
  • Second, big businesses need to be regulated so that smaller, independent shops can grow. A diverse high street means that large supermarkets and hypermarkets must be limited in space and size, and regulated in terms of products. Changes in planning law should reduce the power of the likes of Tesco, Asda-Walmart, Morrison’s and so on. [8]
  • Third, the introduction of a ‘Small Business Saturday’. This has been introduced in the United States, and proven to be highly successful. Figures suggest that more than £3.4 billion were spent that day in 2012. This idea was sponsored by social media and supported by celebrities. It suggests that there is a lot of potential for this to work in the UK.

These are just three ideas, and many more should be looked at – reducing red tape, creating local enterprise zones, and setting up a Post Office Bank. However, none of these measures will be enough. The national economic policies of the current Coalition government are preventing the growth that is desperately needed. Austerity is simply not working. We are now on the brink of a triple-dip recession – an unprecedented and bleak outlook for the future that must be tackled. All of this makes the emphasis on local, sustainable growth even more important.

mg

Notes

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/GenEcon (2011) Understanding High Street Performance, Leeds: GenEcon, paragraph 21 (available here).

[2] See New Economics Foundation (2005) Ghost Town Britain, London: NEF (available here), and New Economics Foundation (2005) Clone Town Britain, London: NEF (available here).

[3] See, for instance, New Economics Foundation (2002) The Money Trail: Measuring the impact on your local economy using LM3, London: NEF (available here).

[4] The Conservatives, for example, have focused much on the ideas of the Big Society: see among others: D. Cameron (2011) Speech on the Big Society, London (available here). See also: Conservative Party (2009) Control Shift: Returning power to local communities, London: Conservative Party. The Labour Party has focused on One Nation as its main alternative starting point for localism. See J. Cruddas (ed.) (2013) One Nation Labour: Debating the future, London: LabourList (available here).

[5] J. Pehl, quoted in M. Portas (2011) The Portas Review, London: BIS, p.15 (available here).

[6] See J. Wilson (2012) Letting Go: How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust the people, London: Fabian Society.

[7] Portas, p.21.

[8] New Economics Foundation (2011) Ten Steps to Save the Cities, London: NEF (available here).

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Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!