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Demise of the city centre

Is it just the UK that relies upon retail space to fill local council's coffers, and Sharon and Bob maxing out their credit card each month to drive the economy? Perhaps I am not as well travelled as some on here, but we do seem to be carrying a large number of 'zombie' businesses that have not moved with the times, I would put Arcadia firmly in this category and WH Smith too. Is there something structural about the UK economy that causes this?

I believe you are seeing a similar thing in the US with 'old money' retail and the likes of Sears getting battered, but I am struggling to think of a continental European equivalent of those that have gone to the wall over the last few years in the High Street. Australia seemed to have pockets of retail that were doing pretty well when I was over there.

On the flip side, there are some massively dynamic and innovative UK businesses which have embraced online retail, automated distribution, and other areas, there just seems to be a chasm between them and those that are long lived but have been on life support for ages. I feel for the workers that will lose their jobs but perhaps a shake out like this is overdue in putting some poor quality businesses out of their misery.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
Going right back to the basic question, I don't think we need high streets in their present format. Even the most devoted amongst us can't really say why they are wanted.

To my mind, and as mentioned previously, a future high street should have specialist shops, a decent baker, dairy products shop, butcher, delicatessen and somewhere to get a hot drink and snack. All independent. Why do we need anything else?

Even open markets these days offer nothing special so why have them?

In my nearest town the high street is full of closed shops, very cheap cafes, charity shops, three or four banks and beggars. The bus station is a shit-heap and the train station is in the wrong place. Where BHS, M&S and Debenhams used to be could be bulldozed and made into a park.

High streets are no longer busy places where folk wander round browsing and we don't have the weather for a proper cafe society as in the Mediterranean countries.

A hundred yards in any direction from the high street, right out to the edge of town there is a convenience store on every other corner, usually run by Asian families and open from 7 to 11 to supply immediate needs.

It is now down to our local authorities in their ivory towers to provide good housing for families very close to town centres on sites of closed shops, and give up the idea of happy high streets full of joy and bustling, smiling people - we don't need them.
The one thing that people are craving is social interaction. High streets are rather good for that - even if you're strolling anonymously through a crowd, it's still being a part of the herd. Browsing would happen more if there were things to browse. That doesn't happen if everything is the same.

But those specialist shops have to compete in a market where much is price-pointed. I'm happy to use specialist shops. An example: I was making a lamb curry at the weekend and needed some neck fillet. A quick drive to my local butcher's and there was a queue outside. Supermarket it was, then, as I was running against the clock.

There, two youths behind the counter who couldn't convert pounds to kilos. Nor were they going to cube the meat for me - I got handed vacuum-sealed bags from the cold cupboard.

Two points: I'd have happily used my local butcher because the service is better but it costs more; and SWMBO and I are lucky being dual-income no kids and so probably have more money floating about than many people.

A lot of those specialists shops can only exist in relatively affluent areas, otherwise they're simply priced out of existence. And, to compete/differentiate on quality, they have to be really good. My local butcher does superb steak, and is my first choice. My local supermarket does steak which is more than passable. Go figure. I'll try to use the butcher first but I'm not disappointed if I have to use the supermarket.

In terms of independent eateries, habit accounts for a lot. Just up the road from me is Horley, near Gatwick. There used to be a very good cafe, 51 North, which did the best coffee for miles - and it was nice inside, not just a 'caff'. Two doors up is a Costa. The Costa is still there, 51 North isn't.

It's not even a matter of price; an independent in Crawley went to the local paper and got a story published which said pretty much, "We're the same price but our quality is better and we're a local independent. Please support us."

Again, though, it's about real differentiation. Unless the independent is really good, Costa etc. are good enough.

In terms of cafe culture, go to somewhere like Northern Italy - hardly balmy, but a cafe culture exists. The same in Northern France. It's a culture in many respects - societal and business. I'd love there to be a decent coffee shop near me but, unfortunately, the ones that do exist keep business hours. Come 5.30, they're closed.

A cafe culture is do-able, it just needs the right facilities and the right business hours. Interestingly, the couple round here that do do well are again privately owned. I can think of a very good Turkish one local to me which does very passable food and cakes, and is clearly a bit of a hub for the local ethnic community from that part of the world. I've no issue with going in there but, again, there's probably a wider cultural issue of a different nature - suspicion of immigrants. Note: that isn’t racism but a comfort-zone thing.

Markets? I was walking through Redhill a couple of summers back. There was a van doing chickens. A woman went up and asked how much they were. The guy in the van told her. Her response was, "But I can get it £2 cheaper in Sainsbury."

Yes, she probably could. But his point about quality and so on was lost on her.

There are some bargains to be had in that market - veg, plants for the garden - but the rest is stalls full of cheap clothes for people of XXXXL size. Go figure.

By contrast, the Christmas market in nearby Reigate is a trove of top-quality foods and craft items. But £££... Reigate is rather more affluent. On the other hand, when that market's on you see a lot of Redhill faces over there.

Which comes to one of your points: a lot of the high street offer is just dross. I had a discussion some years back when I went into M&S in Crawley looking for new t-shirts. Last season's £15 product had been replaced with a paper-thin £3 offer. The shop assistant's justification was that "That's what the local market wants" - and it was wrong. Not all of the local market wants Primark quality. A LOT of that local market has either moved online to specialists, and are prepared to pay, or sod off to such as Bluewater where better quality can be had directly from shops.

There's a distinct point about M&S: I used to go there for quality. Then, it decided to try and compete with Primark but retain M&S pricing. That doesn't work. A lambswool sweater at M&S costs within sight of what it cost 20-odd years ago. Quality, though, has gone through the floor. Look at the price of a lambswool sweater from a quality UK manufacturer online. But the product lasts. Guess where I'm shopping.

A lot of the high street shops/chains need to get past the obsession with price points. Unfortunately, it's too late for many of them.

Many local authorities are already converting a lot of commercial properties into residential, particularly social housing. That's not a new development. But there's a risk associated with that, which is this: the kinds of people who end up in that type of housing aren't affluent. They are your Primark/discount store shoppers. And, they tend not to be especially mobile as they don't have access to a car. If you concentrate them around town centres, you juxtapose a large community of the un-affluent with the outlets you propose which are designed to attract affluence.

...that doesn't work. I don't know what the answers are and I'm not advocating creating ghettos away from town centres which socially exclude. Nor am I stereotyping people and their behaviour based on economic potential. Nevertheless, there needs to be a balance.



Edited to sort spelling.
 
Last edited:

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
Is it just the UK that relies upon retail space to fill local council's coffers, and Sharon and Bob maxing out their credit card each month to drive the economy? Perhaps I am not as well travelled as some on here, but we do seem to be carrying a large number of 'zombie' businesses that have not moved with the times, I would put Arcadia firmly in this category and WH Smith too. Is there something structural about the UK economy that causes this?

I believe you are seeing a similar thing in the US with 'old money' retail and the likes of Sears getting battered, but I am struggling to think of a continental European equivalent of those that have gone to the wall over the last few years in the High Street. Australia seemed to have pockets of retail that were doing pretty well when I was over there.

On the flip side, there are some massively dynamic and innovative UK businesses which have embraced online retail, automated distribution, and other areas, there just seems to be a chasm between them and those that are long lived but have been on life support for ages. I feel for the workers that will lose their jobs but perhaps a shake out like this is overdue in putting some poor quality businesses out of their misery.
I do wonder how many of the smaller operations over on the continent survive. If anyone knows how the business model is different, it would be useful to know.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
I was out with a journalist for Photo Plus magazine a couple of weeks ago and we were chatting about this, and he was saying that the Lockdowns have been the nail in the coffin. A lot is to do with how people consume media, youngsters would rather use YouTube and the internet for finding out things where those over 45-50 prefer a mixture of the 2, but niche markets such as Black and White or Brand specific magazines seem to be doing OK.
To be honest, the YouTube option makes a lot of sense. It's easier to to do 'demonstration-emulation' than try and interpret someone's written words, even if there are step-by-step pictures.
 
Cafe culture is exactly that, a culture same as the drinking culture. We in the UK (outside London) just don't seem to buy into it, it seems we as a nation are always in a rush...no time to sit like the French, Italians and Spanish do and just mellow. We grab stuff and go always lurching onto the next thing, never taking time to savour, that is why places like Costa and Starshit exist and do well, mediocre products for those with no time to savour a good product.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
Cafe culture is exactly that, a culture same as the drinking culture. We in the UK (outside London) just don't seem to buy into it, it seems we as a nation are always in a rush...no time to sit like the French, Italians and Spanish do and just mellow. We grab stuff and go always lurching onto the next thing, never taking time to savour, that is why places like Costa and Starshit exist and do well, mediocre products for those with no time to savour a good product.
For many people, 'cafe' means a greasy spoon. And, in this country, with reasonable cause.

A decent cafe is actually a wonderful thing, and much as I enjoy a few jars if the option was there to go to a decent cafe I'd divide my time. I don't need to get píssed to socialise publicly but in many instances there aren't any choices because the increasingly mediocre pubs owned by pubcos.
 
I do wonder how many of the smaller operations over on the continent survive. If anyone knows how the business model is different, it would be useful to know.
Starter for ten; occupancy costs. Most of which are driven by the concept that real estate investment is a business.

The knock on of high property prices is higher wages. And the council demands business rates whatever your turnover and margin.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
Starter for ten; occupancy costs. Most of which are driven by the concept that real estate investment is a business.

The knock on of high property prices is higher wages. And the council demands business rates whatever your turnover and margin.
Pretty much.

A more sensationalist click-bait interpretation might be 'greedy landlords'.

At one stage, commercial rents had gone up 10 percent every year since WWII regardless of economic conditions. That's every year, over decades.

I don't know the precise situation now; I'm a few years out of the loop at the moment, but not so many as to make that observation irrelevant.

My physiotherapist uses a commercial unit that last year was acquired by a new landlord, along with the others around it. Immediately, the tenants got a letter saying that rents were going up 40 percent 'in line with rates in the surrounding area'.

Collectively, they responded pointing out the number of voids in the local area and that rates in the local area were unsustainable. The 40 percent increase was quietly dropped.
 
If you look behind these landlords a lot are backed by Pension companies that are getting best returns to fuel our pension pots...it is a vicious self feeding cycle.
 
With the death of the pubs, I'd like to see the emergence of small family owned cafes, selling food, coffees and beer or wine, all together and cozy.

A much better friendly atmosphere than the average boozer, where I can enjoy a beer and my wife can enjoy a coffee, just like in Europe
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
If you look behind these landlords a lot are backed by Pension companies that are getting best returns to fuel our pension pots...it is a vicious self feeding cycle.
...a point that was made to me in conversation about 10 years ago when people were starting to make noises about more people working from home to reduce congestion, etc.

A lot of the resistance to change was put down to dinosaur management - who hid behind the 'the technology isn't ready' excuse when really they just wanted to stand over people in an office as they'd always done.

The less obvious point, as put to me back then, was/is that so much of pension funds is tied up in commercial properties and the revenues therefrom.

Pandemic has buggered both lines of reasoning.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
With the death of the pubs, I'd like to see the emergence of small family owned cafes, selling food, coffees and beer or wine, all together and cozy.

A much better friendly atmosphere than the average boozer, where I can enjoy a beer and my wife can enjoy a coffee, just like in Europe
The 'average boozer' is now owned by the likes of Empire, Punch etc. The landscape has changed.

The nicest place I currently know to drink is the tap room of my local microbrewery.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
Actually, park that.

Given the state of the local pubs, the nicest place I currently know to drink is at home, with a tray of ales delivered by my local microbrewery.

I'm not alone in that.
 
Although there are various reasons why Europe may or may not have so many bankruptcies, I'd suggest the majority of people in the UK would be unaware of any because its not really newsworthy in the UK
 
Pretty much.

A more sensationalist click-bait interpretation might be 'greedy landlords'.

At one stage, commercial rents had gone up 10 percent every year since WWII regardless of economic conditions. That's every year, over decades.

I don't know the precise situation now; I'm a few years out of the loop at the moment, but not so many as to make that observation irrelevant.

My physiotherapist uses a commercial unit that last year was acquired by a new landlord, along with the others around it. Immediately, the tenants got a letter saying that rents were going up 40 percent 'in line with rates in the surrounding area'.

Collectively, they responded pointing out the number of voids in the local area and that rates in the local area were unsustainable. The 40 percent increase was quietly dropped.
It’s not just commercial landlords though is it? The average price of a house is approaching five times the combined wages of two average earners.

Property costs are a massive disincentive for entrepreneurism. It’s a double whammy; too much of your business earnings go on occupancy costs whilst too much of your drawings go on housing costs.

It’s hardly surprising people seek out public sector roles.
 
We are lucky in Saffron Walden, we have a good smattering of independent cafes such as Tea Amore, Gluttons, The Mocha, The Tiptree Tea Rooms, plus a few others. They promote the cafe culture and are very popular. We also have the Costa and Starshit but people do use the small tea rooms.

Here is the rub though, councils allow these big chains to set up. If you want a diverse and thriving High Street councils need to look at their planning permissions and give favourable rates to smaller independent type shops.
 
We are lucky in Saffron Walden, we have a good smattering of independent cafes such as Tea Amore, Gluttons, The Mocha, The Tiptree Tea Rooms, plus a few others. They promote the cafe culture and are very popular. We also have the Costa and Starshit but people do use the small tea rooms.

Here is the rub though, councils allow these big chains to set up. If you want a diverse and thriving High Street councils need to look at their planning permissions and give favourable rates to smaller independent type shops.

Why? If they cant pay their way let them go to the wall.
 

RiffRaff

Clanker
Why does everyone continue to blame local councils for high business rates when they are set by central government? All the town hall does is collect them.
 

Cold_Collation

LE
Book Reviewer
We are lucky in Saffron Walden, we have a good smattering of independent cafes such as Tea Amore, Gluttons, The Mocha, The Tiptree Tea Rooms, plus a few others. They promote the cafe culture and are very popular. We also have the Costa and Starshit but people do use the small tea rooms.

Here is the rub though, councils allow these big chains to set up. If you want a diverse and thriving High Street councils need to look at their planning permissions and give favourable rates to smaller independent type shops.
Nowt new under the sun.

Retail consortia and public health organisations have been advocating differential business rates based on public health impact for years. I actually wrote about the following report in an article a few yers ago.

But, the aspiration, when you seek to those at the commercial front end, gets a knowing chuckle. The public-sector advocates of better public health butt up against those in the public sector looking to maximise revenues from business rates.
 

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