In The City……….

There has been a recent upsurge in articles both locally and nationally concerned about the possible demise of the retail high-street and pondering what the future holds for our town and city centres.

To be honest it’s a subject I’ve written about before, and it’s certainly of concern to any of us if we have a walk around some of our less attractive parts of town with their social problems and vacant units.

I honestly think at this point there is little point going over old ground bemoaning the problems that high streets are facing. People, who are far more knowledgeable than I, have already written about it far more eloquently than I could ever manage.  All I would say is that the retail high street is facing well publicised massive challenges and difficulties; and we have to accept it is happening.

What I would rather do is open a discussion about how we respond to it. With my own business BB&J Commercial being based in the centre of Derby’s Cathedral Quarter, it’s a subject I take a keen interest in.

We are all to some extent ‘stakeholders’ in our city centres. If we are not property owners or occupiers who directly invest, we still all choose how and where to spend our money and our time, and it is this decision that will shape the future of our towns and cities as they go through this period of change. From individual consumers through to businesses, property owners, planning committees and local and national government, everyone has a part to play.

In no particular order some of the main considerations that need to be addressed in my personal opinion are as follows:

Collaboration.  Large retailers are in trouble as we know. Some of them have cut their costs by putting brands together in the same shop. For example in Derby Burton Menswear now shares the same store as Dorothy Perkins. This works because they are both part of the same ‘umbrella’ business and it saves costs such as rents, rates etc.

It can clearly be more difficult to collaborate where there are competing brands and multiple landlords with their own vested interests who may not want to cooperate. However it does offer an interesting idea in the independent sector, where businesses benefit from collectively being together. Local successes have been seen in The Post House, which contains several separate food and drink outlets under one roof. Such businesses clearly benefit from  collaboration as they collectively ‘draw’ customers, and  would probably not be able to operate as stand- alone businesses. It’s an interesting idea to think where this could go with other such collaborations.

Change of Use.  An amendment to planning rules has allowed a planning change of use from office to residential without the need for obtaining formal planning permission. It has arguably been of mixed blessing. On a very positive note it has resulted in residential schemes being built where office schemes had stalled. We now have multi-storey student apartment blocks built at Friar Gate Square and nearing completion adjacent Joseph Wright College amongst others, all of which have brought a burgeoning population into the city centre, bringing valuable spending particularly to the night time leisure economy.

The possible down side is that the lack of city centre office development means less of a lunch time spending economy, which has an adverse impact on retail outlets. Larger cities with a strong office core have been more resilient to struggles in the retail market as they have more lunchtime spending, whilst smaller cities and towns with less of a weekday lunchtime economy tend to suffer in comparison. This does however point toward a possible solution whereby the reliance on traditional retail is replaced by an expanding leisure sector.

Derby seems to have partly embraced this as the leisure offering at Intu already includes a growing number of eateries as well as a bowling alley and crazy golf. This ‘leisure spend’ points a possible way forward, though needs to be embraced by the wider high street and independent sector, not just the Intu. It’s good to see that Derby Planners have granted permission for a golf course in the old Ritzy’ s nightclub on Babington Lane, and as has been mentioned elsewhere they have also seen sense by going against the planning officer’s recommendation and granted permission for a Belgian style chip shop on St Peters Street. Hopefully this is a sign that planners recognise the demands on the high street are changing, and the idea of clinging on to a busy high street purely full of retail shops is very much a thing of the past.

Business Rates. Commercial property occupiers, particularly those in the retail sector, have long complained that the financial impact of rates is crippling in terms of cost to most businesses. The government refuses to budge on this issue, I suspect because it isn’t a vote winner with the general public, and city centre shops across the country pay c £8billion per year to government in rates. The perverse reality is that the online retailers, many of whom are based out of town in huge warehouses, pay up to 90% less. It is almost impossible for city centre shops to compete with that. One proposal that has been put forward is to scrap rates and bring in a sales tax (as a % of turnover) to make those that generate more pay more. In my opinion this is something that needs to be urgently addressed, and the government needs to step up and recognise the far-reaching social and economic consequences its immovability on this point is having.

New Development.  Despite the changing nature of our city centres, there seems to be a reluctance on some parts to both acknowledge the need for new development and positively act upon it. Let’s be up front and take Derby as an example.

There has been a recent proposal for a development of student flats on Agard Street. Objections were received from various parties on the grounds of scale, height and massing. These objectors are well organised, vocal and very visible. It would be fair to say I think that they are in a minority. The majority of people who have no objections do not however speak up. So do the well-organised objectors hold more sway over the planners than the silent majority? It’s a debate that needs to be had, as Derby certainly seems to have a track record of rejecting prominent new schemes, particularly those of height, on often spurious grounds.

Whist everyone has a right to object, they also have a right to offer support and I think we all need to provide that. Many of these schemes will bring vital investment into Derby at a time when it is much needed, and surely a case needs to be made for the positive economic, social and regenerative impact such schemes can have. If we attach weight to all of these factors, which is the most important? I would argue the needs of the city in terms of its vitality and future growth are far more important than trying  to hang on to a city centre that has passed its sell by date. The planning committee should be independent and objective at all times rather than serving any personal agendas they may have. If anyone on the planning committee has allegiances to organisations that have an agenda against development then they are clearly conflicted, and unable to objectively fulfil their role. Of course every application should be properly scrutinised, but there seems to be an agenda for blocking development rather than encouraging it.   The question has to be asked ‘why?’.  There has to be a way a forward for new development and heritage to exist side by side, and the sooner that is accepted by all of us as stakeholders, the sooner we will grow to be a better city.

In Conclusion….

All of the above make up a bit of a ‘wish list’ of ideas that I think ought to be addressed in dealing with the changing landscape of our city centre. I know there are many others I speak to who feel the same. Importantly, on a local level we can make something of a difference with a strong collective effort.  Those of us with an interest in shaping the future of Derby need to speak up on planning issues. A strong case needs to be made for accepting development that has a significant positive economic impact on the city and its future vitality. On any reasonable balance surely this outweighs rejecting new schemes to preserve a city centre landscape that simply no longer works. I would genuinely be interested to hear others thoughts on this, whether for or against.