I went to a talk on the future of high streets at last night’s Ealing Business Forum. The speaker was Bill Grimsey and he has a strong track record of running high- street chains including Iceland and Wickes amongst others. He’s an interesting character as he is now retired and has spent most of his retirement arguing for a radical re-think in how we should use our high streets. He believes the traditional retail led high street is dead on its feet and needs to be replaced with a new vision where housing, leisure, health, entertainment and community services and activities take over from empty shops and an excess of betting shops and payday loan shops. West Ealing Neighbours has raised these issues a number of times over the past years as we have seen ever more betting shops, loan shops and their like come in to the West Ealing shopping centre. What was interesting about last night’s talk was to hear the argument in more detail. Whether or not you agree with Mr Grimsey’s view is for each to decide but what seems important to me is to get the issues aired and discussed. A key element of his argument is that despite the importance of the retail sector, with a turnover greater than even the health budget, the future of our high streets is unlikely to appear in any political manifesto in this year’s election.
So, looking at some of his key points:
- The UK retail sector has a bigger turnover than health, education or defence
- High streets are a more reliable measure of the economy than economists’ forecasts
- High streets have seen an increase in betting shops, payday loan shops, convenience stores and fast dood outlets
- Rapid growth of online shopping is irreversible and will mean major changes in the way supermarkets operate with the decline of the large out-of-town stores and an increase in local convenience stores for people to top up on their online shopping
- A great opportunity for fresh and local food outlets – ‘ fresh food emporiums’ – selling products which can not easily be provided by the large supermarkets in store or online
- Shops with no stock will be a feature of new high streets. Take fashion , you’ll be able to try out clothes in a virtual world and then order what you want. This may even mean manufacturing comes back to the UK as clothes made on demand rather than imported in bulk on spec from all across the world.
- Could Amazon start to sell food and would it mean even cheaper prices?
- Abolish business rates for small independent retailers. The revenue from these is about 6% of the total.
As I said, whether or not you agree with Bill Grimsey his views are informed by 40 years of retail experience and are well worth thinking about. In many ways, here in London and the south east we haven’t seen anything like the average 14% level of vacant shops that many other towns and cities have experienced but his arguments are just as valid. For who hasn’t been aware of the incease in betting shops, payday loan shops, fast food outlets and convenience stores in and around West Ealing.
Bill Grimsey’s closing point is that every town needs a plan for the future of its high streets. Without a plan it’s all left to market forces and failed attempts to fill unwanted space. I know the West Ealing Centre Neighbourhood Forum has this on its radar for its plan for the centre of West Ealing. The future nature of our shopping centre is something that should concern every one of us.
There is much more to his arguments than I’ve been able to capture in this post. You can find out more on his website