High Street Blues?

The general election has, some would say, split the United Kingdom. Look at a map showing the political hues and the predominant colours are Conservative blues and the yellow of the Scottish Nationalists. Talk of federalism, constitutional reform and changes at Westminster – all ahead of what now seems to be an inevitable in/out referendum on membership of the European Union in 2017. Throw in a Scottish election in 2016, and it looks like a busy time ahead for the pollsters. Oh good.

How does all this impact on our ‘high streets’? I say ‘high streets’ because political talk of town and city centre rejuvenation has, regardless of any party allegiance or nationality, become obsessed with ‘high streets’ … often ignoring the broader needs of a given destination.

It has been the ‘BIG’ topic for a number of years – often to the exclusion and detriment of others in the same space. Politicians like big stories, big topics and big headlines. They also like to convince the electorate that there are big differences between the parties. There are differences, but all are elected to serve their electorate, regardless of affiliation.

In the 650 seats contested, 11.3m people voted Conservative. 1.4m voted SNP across Scotland’s 59 seats. The idea that all Conservatives are alumni of Eton college with exceptionally wealthy parents, living the life of Sloane rangers on today’s stock market gains is as preposterous as the caricature of all Scottish Nationalists as claymore-wielding, kilt-wearing Highlanders, crying ‘freedom’ as they run through peat bogs.

What unites all, no matter where our political affiliations lie, is that we associate ourselves with a place where we live: our village, town or city where we call ‘home’, be it in Wandsworth or Wick.

Regardless of our politics, the majority are passionate and protective about our homes – our communities. And it is a fair bet – possibly more accurately forecast than any of the pre-election polls – to suggest that the UK’s ‘big three’ – Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – attract shoppers from across the voting spectrum.

The UK’s biggest supermarkets – the shopping equivalents of Labour and the Liberal Democrats – have taken a pummelling. Much of their losses are attributed to the write downs in the value of their property portfolios, but a collective loss of more than ??7bn reported this year is the consequence of an astonishing dip in support. Murphy’s law perhaps?

At a national and international level, big questions lie ahead for our leaders. Meanwhile, at a local and regional level, questions are being asked over the future of our communities – their make up, their retail offering and their ability to deliver attractive, active and accessible places in which we live, work and play.

I have written before about the stupidity of price cutting – an ever-decreasing spiral to the bottom. In the end, there are only losers. It is unsustainable – especially when faced with competitors who do it better.

The current position offers a big opportunity. Local authorities now know that the big supermarkets are not the perceived shining knights they once appeared to be. Many stores across oversized portfolios are looking tired. Development plans for new stores are being shelved. Existing stores are being reworked to shed floor space.

So those same local authorities need to think outside the box. They need to form new coalitions with businesses and stakeholders in their areas. They need to work in partnership with those who consider their areas to be their home: local retailers, local tourism and leisure providers, local businesses … all those who identify with that place as home, for them, their employees and their customers.

Why? Because – as customers – we love ‘local for convenience’ and ‘regional for choice’. For many years, supermarkets pretended to offer us both. But the big boys are being undercut by smaller convenience stores who better understand the meaning of the word, and when it comes to the regional centres that burgeoned through the 1990s and early 2000s, ‘choice’ is blown out of the water by the internet’s infinite offer.

And in the last few years, we have become what the Scots would call ‘canny’. The vast majority of people have had to watch their spend more closely – and even those you might think do not need to be frugal have discovered the benefits of shopping around. We began to realise just how much money we were wasting, shopping in places that did not care for us as much as they once did. We learned to tighten our belts, shop more wisely and – to spend our hard-earned money with those who looked after us. Preferably, with those who did not serve us horse meat.

As the economy improved – and continues to improve – that lesson stays with us: spend wisely, keep it local as well as price check online. Scrap the big monthly shop in favour of smaller purchases to avoid waste and, crucially, take control through the ever empowering use of social media.

Whatever happens across the UK – whatever the make-up of the Westminster select committees and the changes that may or may not follow on the country’s constitution – as sure as eggs is eggs, the opportunity for towns and cities is bigger and better than it has been for a long time.

The election result was a big shock: no one predicted the Conservatives would win an outright majority and no one forecast the SNP tsunami. It has shown us that the old rules no long apply. What once was does not have to be.

Despite the perceived political differences, if towns and cities across the UK grasp that, the future doesn’t have to be blue.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post

12/05/2015 10:26 BST | Updated 12/05/2016 06:59 BST