So the government’s ‘retail guru’ Mary Portas has said that some high streets are doomed and should be turned over to other uses. I don’t share the government’s high regard for her but I do agree that it is time to reconsider the structure and location of retailing.
As usual, I’ll highlight the problem first, then suggest the solution.
I live on the edge of Ipswich. The area is a nice place to live but I rarely go into town. To be absolutely honest, I try hard NOT to go into town. I am sure they don’t want me there anyway, since they try hard to deter me from going in.
In the last year, I’ve been to radio studio three times, the cinema once (that involved over 20 mins looking for a car parking space nearby, eventually parking much further away and walking), and shopping once, dragged kicking and screaming, having to wade through a lake in a waiting-for-brown-field-development car park on our side of town that we used to avoid the trauma of traffic congestion. The planners were presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix a lot of the congestion when they started redevelopment of the docks, but instead actually worsened the traffic routing and created even more congestion. I don’t know why they did that, but they did. You could say that Ipswich had been a one-horse town, but the planners shot the horse. Ipswich could have been a great deal better with just a bit of thought. Having said that, there are far worse places, far worse. I’m probably just a troglodyte that owns a shaver.
Like many other towns, a lot of the shops are closing. The issues are familiar all over the country. Congestion, lack of parking and high parking fees compete with easy home delivery from online purchases. Congestion is not the same as throughput, and even though it seems busy, town centre businesses obviously aren’t getting enough business or they wouldn’t be closing.
I’ve written on the future of high street retailing before:
Online shopping offers formidable competition, and in those previous blogs I looked at what can be done to compete . This time, I want to concentrate on the location of shops.
Sometimes I just want to get out of the house and go shopping. If I don’t have anything particularly in mind, I go to Woodbridge and Felixstowe, mainly because they are just as fast to get to as Ipswich, but prettier, it is far easier to park there, and parking doesn’t cost a fortune. If the trip is purely functional, I will often end up at a retail park. They are easy to get to, I can park close to the shop I want, and it is free.
There has been huge resistance to out of town shopping centres over the last decade or two because they obviously take customers away from town centres, and involve driving so were considered environmentally unfriendly. Let’s look at both of those in the light of the new reality.
Big retail parks are mostly full of enormous warehouse stores that offer a purely functional destination. Some are selling stuff that is best suited to online purchasing and the less competitive ones are likely to die or shrink. As they free up the big warehouses, these could be attractively redesigned to house many shops that once lived in town centres. So when someone goes to their local retail park to look at furniture or DIY kit, they might well spend an extra while wandering through some interesting small shops. The big stores would act as a functional magnet, and the small shops would add interest and serendipity, making a boring functional trip into an enjoyable experience that could fund a flourishing retail community. Provided the rents and rates are OK, and that parking is free and abundant, this could work well as a model for high street condensation and relocation. It could even rejuvenate physical retailing, especially small businesses.
As for environmental impact, being stuck in a traffic jam is far more polluting than driving along unimpeded. Out of town centres can be placed to work well with the local human geography and roads so that traffic can flow smoothly and make less pollution. Parking must be adequate to cope with latent demand or that will drive potential customers onto the net, or force them to drive round and round car parks looking for places, polluting as they go. People who live in town centres generally have ready access to public transport and it is just as easy to aim routes at out of town centres as it is to town centres. If the old high streets are re-purposed, then retail business would just be moved to more viable locations where they could flourish.
If we move shopping out of town, almost everyone benefits. People living out of town would not have to go into town to shop, and congestion there would probably fall so that it would be less traumatic when they do have to go in for other reasons. People living in towns would still have public transport access to shops, just in different locations. The few who live within easy walking distance of town shopping centres would suffer having to go further to shops, but they will suffer their loss anyway if they don’t move.
For people out of town, well designed out-of-town shopping centres offer the potential of reinvention and to rekindle the joy of shopping. For townies, the alternative to shops that are a bit further away might be to have no shops at all. That’s probably the new reality and we either embrace it or suffer it. Government and planners should recognise that and make policy accordingly.