Many recent studies demonstrate that high street footfall is decreasing. In December last year there were 11% fewer visitors to towns and cities, than the year before. Some of this was due to the terrible weather, but year-on-year decline is the overwhelming trend. Nevertheless, like all averages, these figures do not tell the whole story. Regional cities, such as Liverpool for example, are not suffering the same decline as smaller, surrounding towns, like Crosby. There is, no doubt, a cannibalisation effect, caused by the high levels of regeneration investmentconcentrated on larger cities. Smaller towns often just can’t compete.
So, what are the options, when you cannot serve the needs of the consumers in your catchment area, or they prefer to get in their cars, hop on a bus, train or tram and spend their money somewhere else? Not all places adapt to meet the needs of their communities, and if they don’t, in a free market economy, they will suffer. They may not necessarily disappear, but they may well drop in the place ‘hierarchy’ – from a local retail, service and even political centre, to a suburb with a ‘tertiary retail offer’. Of course, the free market, “do or die” mentality does not account for the historic capital a place may have built up.
One thing is for certain, people need a reason to visit their town centres. That’s why so many developers can argue the case for edge-of-town or in town supermarket expansion….as their research will demonstrate that the existing market is ‘underserved’…in other words the town is not meeting the shopping needs of its catchment area. But just because a market is underserved, that doesn’t mean the only solution is another, or bigger, Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys or Morrisons.
Another reason developers do not face much of a challenge is because they understand the planning regime, political processes and they have the resources and skills to keep going. If communities can mobilise themselves to mount a challenge then they need a clear proposal for an alternative (for example, just how are they proposing to expand the existing retail offer), they need tenacity (these things take time), they need to talk the right language, and, I would argue, they need an independent legal constitution so they are taken seriously.