Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

As High Streets Struggle, Assembly Calls for More Aspic

It is tempting for us politicians to think that we can make things better by intervening, without stopping to take stock of our previous efforts, and whether they had any effect or even made things worse.

This is something the Mayor would do well to be aware of now that the London Assembly has delivered its opinion on the struggle faced by local shops; troubles not helped by the recession of course.

The report …

…. calls for changes to local, regional and national planning policies – including the Use Classes Order – to offer them more protection…

Deputy Chair of the Planning and Housing Committee, Jenny Jones AM, said:

“People in residential areas need local shops that provide essential services that they can walk to.  They do not need rows of betting shops and internet cafés, or to have to travel to supermarkets by car.”

Whether they need rows of betting shops and internet cafés is hardly for government to decide. They may not need to have to travel to supermarkets by car … yet they might want to.

It seems that some people have an idyllic view of the corner shop, open all hours, which is then brutally crushed by the big supermarket opening up down the road. Yet it’s not the supermarket that closes the shop – it’s the fact that so many people prefer to shop at the supermarket. Tesco et al know this. If they thought that their offer wasn’t better than the existing provision, they wouldn’t waste money opening up.

“Use it or lose it” goes the old saying.

Ms Jones’ committee’s well-meaning suggestion, then, is to use the planning system to protect local shops which are clearly not serving their customers sufficiently or they wouldn’t need protecting.

… it is time to revise the Use Classes Order.  Revision of the Order would give local authorities the power to stop essential shops changing to outlets like internet cafés and betting shops without planning permission.

The reason there are some streets with, apparently, rows of betting shops is that the original shops have closed and the landlords have to find paying tenants to replace them. If we get too picky about what a shop can be changed to, then the result won’t be a new generation of sweet little local emporia; it’ll be empty units or yet more charity shops.

It can also be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, as such a dilemma would typically face a landlord after the trade has already gone to the big evil Tesco. “Fine”, you may say, “so stop Tesco’s opening” – yet that brings us back to the “supermarkets don’t kill shops – people kill shops” point earlier.

Most curious, though, is this nugget:

Along with the economic downturn, the rise of the big supermarkets and their move into ‘local format’ stores, like ‘Tesco Metro’ and ‘Sainsbury’s Local’, has also contributed to the loss of smaller retailers …

The Local/Metro format was first introduced some years’ back, partly in recognition of the fact that some people wanted the benefit of the range of goods and reasonable prices that come with a supermarket, but with the convenience of it being in their local high street. Yet the report seems to display a knee-jerk anti-supermarket reaction in attacking them. For a struggling high street or local centre, a large concern such as a supermarket chain can be an anchor in rough economic seas, drawing customers into the neighbourhood. So trying to impose a 1950’s view of what a high street should look like could simply condemn a few more to becoming “rows of betting shops”.

However, I’m going to be a little wishy-washy in my commitment to laissez-faire now, and point out that councils are significant land-owners in any high street – not least because they own the High Street itself. Making the public spaces more attractive places to circulate, making the streets safer and other improvements to the public realm can have a positive catalytic effect on the local economy – probably far more than the dead hand of the planning system.

That could also involve, for the GLA’s part, taking out a few high street red routes and ensuring that TfL road works are carried out a little more intelligently (unlike the efforts of Boris’ predecessor on Local Government Minister Bob Neill’s old patch in Coney Hall).

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