The Grimsey Review

David Walters – a Resident of Gisburn @DavidWaters4 responded to My Call on Social Media for Support for Our Proposals to Regenerate Clitheroe Town Centre following our response to The Grimsey Review.

He then sent us both a detailed response on Email which I asked whether we could publish – a request he kindly acceded to.

Here I publish his verbatim response in full – Many Thanks for Your Support David!

Dear Councillors Mirfin and Horkin,

I have read your brief summary of the Grimsey report and it is good news to see you have taken on the challenge to help guarantee the future of Clitheroe Town Centre.

My wife and I have lived in Gisburn for 7 years and we regularly shop in Clitheroe with an occasional trip to Skipton. Unfortunately we have seen some slight deterioration of Clitheroe in that short time with some shops closing and more charity shops opening. We both originate from Bolton and we were once very proud of its town centre. It was pedestrianised in the late 1960’s and what a difference that made! Whilst I was only young at the time I do recall there was some fuss about where people would get the bus and how would they get to where they wanted to go but that soon died down and the town took advantage of the pedestrianisation with all kinds of events. Shoppers could walk around the shops for all their needs without having to dodge the traffic. I think pedestrianisation in Clitheroe is well worth considering.

Then came the out of town centres such as the Trafford Centre and Middlebrook as well as the ever bigger supermarkets that sold everything from a bag of onions to a new bike! Local people expressed their concern to the planners at the time of the effect this would have on the town centre but no notice was taken. The town centre deteriorated with the smaller shops such as butchers, bakers, green grocers etc being forced out to be replaced with charity shops,pound shops, pawnbroker type shops etc. Car parking charges were also relatively high if you wanted to spend more than a couple of hours there. Not only smaller shops were affected but the bigger quality department stores closed and were replaced with bars like Weatherspoons. We used to like going back to Bolton town centre but not any more.

I’m sure many people up and down the country can tell similar stories about their own large towns. We don’t want to see Clitheroe suffer the same fate and so I welcome the formation of a Town Centre Team to plan for the future.

We are fortunate that we are able to shop during the week and don’t have too many problems parking. However on market days and at weekend I have found it difficult sometimes to park. I don’t personally find carat king charges excessive, particularly if you only want to stay a couple of hours. If people want to spend longer in the town centre then clearly both the availability of parking is going to be an issue as well as the cost. Living in one of the rural villages public transport is not really an option as buses are only every hour and they finish early in the evening. The ridiculous thing is that they finish earlier at weekends and bank holidays! Whilst we have a rail line from Gisburn to Clitheroe we don’t have a station and that is something that could help people get to and from Clitheroe town centre. A co-ordinated transport policy that supports rural communities will have benefits for the town centre.

The levy on supermarkets and large retailers to help fund the regeneration of the town centre is something worth considering. Of course we all know that the retailers will pass this cost on to the customer eventually but that is not necessarily a bad thing if it promotes the use of the smaller town centre shops.

It is important to have a plan for the future of the town centre in order to identify possible sites for future development and deciding what should be there. This is preferable than waiting for developers to submit planning applications for sites for whatever use they want rather than what is right for the town centre.

I have no doubt there is a lot of work to do but Clitheroe Town Centre is far from dead and will definitely benefit from your plans.

Regards,

David Waters

Gisburn

Clitheroe is “Open for Business” – it will take the establishment of a New more active Clitheroe Town Team to advertise the fact and we might have to levy a surcharge on large Town Centre SuperMarket & Major Retail Chains to help us fund this exercise!  

We support the key recommendations of the Grimsey Review (due for release this Wednesday) written by Retail veteran Bill Grimsey, former Chief Executive at Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY, into what needs to be done to reinvigorate Britain’s town centres. We believe that it has particular relevance to the situation facing High Street Retailers in Clitheroe following the closure of two more Businesses in recent weeks: Coco Couture and Clitheroe Music further “hollowing out” Clitheroe Town Centre.

After sending out 100 freedom of information requests Grimsey’s review found that more than half of the local authorities questioned had no town centre plan in place, despite widespread concerns about the health of high streets. Retail vacancy rates – empty shops – are running at an average of 15 per cent. Some parts of the country, have 20 per cent of their shops vacant. Retailing is in the middle of a perfect storm. Customers are migrating in ever increasing numbers to online and mobile phone shopping. The very fabric of our towns and cities is dying. Independent stores that were once part of a vital hub are disappearing at a rate of 50 a week. Half of high street retailers in danger of closing down, Grimsey argues, or are at “serious risk of failure”. The report says that 47pc of the country’s retail companies — over 20,000 businesses — are in financial difficulty, based on detailed financial analysis of their accounts. Over the past 15 years, statistics show that a quarter of 20,500 troubled retailers will fail in the next three years. Among the smallest retailers, the independent backbone of so many high streets and town centres, the prospects are the most bleak. Sadly most of them lack the financial resources to see them through their problems. Meanwhile 16,000 supply chain companies — which feed the retailers — are also at risk.

According to Grimsey, back in 2008, there were 8,598 retail businesses with liabilities at least £5,000 higher than their assets; zombie companies in the commercial equivalent of negative equity in the housing market. Between them, they had a net deficit of £1.1bn. Fast forward to summer 2013 and this army of the retail walking dead has more than doubled to more than 20,000, with £2.3bn of net liabilities to service. Sir Stuart Rose, the former Marks & Spencer boss and the current Ocado chairman, gives a bleak prognosis of what should happen to Britain’s thousands of empty shops: “I say don’t try to resuscitate the dead. Concentrate on the living and make the living better.”

Talk of “an army of the walking dead” may be over exaggerated and strictly for P.R. consumption. Undeniably however small retail chains across Britain are “horribly stressed financially”.

Richard Hyman, president of retail consultancy, PatelMiller, says that the number of shops in Britain has been falling for decades. Britain now has 250,000 shops, compared to 750,000 in the mid-1960s. According to the Centre for Retail Research, a further 22pc of all stores – some 61,930 shops – will have gone by 2018.

Whilst not sharing Grimsey’s prognosis that like similar Towns across the North West which are in  a “deep decline”, over the last couple of months we have both recognised that the High Street Retail Sector in Clitheroe is certainly under pressure. There have certainly never been as many empty units in Clitheroe Town Centre previously. Anecdotal evidence from Local Traders confirms that many are not doing as well as they would like to put it markedly. Nor do we accept Grimsey’s proposition, that the high street as we know it is necessarily finished. This is far too pessimistic a prognosis. As the recent Clitheroe Food Festival amply demonstrated with a will and a way there can be life in the Old High Street yet. That is why we believe the series of 31 structured recommendations, proposed by Grimsey, in order to address the problem of Town Centre decline are worth looking at in close detail, especially the following:

First, Leadership Grimsey recommends establishing a commission for each town centre to build a 20-year vision supported by a broad business plan in five-year chunks, with updates at an annual public meeting. We strongly advocate the setting up of a New “empowered and emboldened” Town Centre Team for Clitheroe made up of dynamic local Entrepreneurs and local representatives with experiencing in bidding for Growth Funding. We believe that the Town Team will be tasked with making ambitious bids for Regional Growth Funding especially to regenerate the enormous untapped potential of Clitheroe’s currently moribund Market. We saw how busy and profitable the market could be as a community space during the Clitheroe Food Festival – it takes effort but that is the impact that the active leadership and direction that a “switched on Town Centre Team” backed by Funding & Resource from both Ribble Valley Borough Council & Lancashire County Council can bring.

Second, “vision”.  Grimsey further recomends preparing for a “Wired Town Centre” – a Wireless enabled Hotspot that puts public spaces at the centre based on current and future technology. In the foreword to his Report Grimsey says: “It was clear to me that Mary Portas failed to highlight to the Government the dramatic structural changes impacting the retail industry through the convergence of changing consumer behaviour driven by technology and brought about by the prevailing economic conditions.”

As Marketeers we both appreciate that the experiential shopping experience is as much about how a business markets itself On-Line as it does on the High Street.  One of the most encouraging aspects of the Clitheroe Food Festival was the great use that even long established businesses were making of Social Media – Twitter & Facebook to drive footfall to their stalls and into their stores. @famoussausages anybody? It is our aim to encourage the takeup of Business Support services to ensure that Businesses maximise their presence on-line by developing web-sites that allow them to use special offers, events and sales to drive footfall but more importantly to exploit the potential of e-commerce to sell on-line and thus develop a more sustainable presence on the High Street. It has become a truism that if you can’t find a Business On-line you are unlikely to find it on the High Street! One of the more intruiging presentations we have both sat through recently was an overview of the impact of Marketing on Businesses in Liverpool One during Capital of Culture Year in the City. 85% of Businesses rebuilt their web-sites with over two thirds building an e-commerce front end – even restaurants where you could book and pay for a Table in advance as well as order what you want to eat. Take a look at the Web-Sites of The Villa and La Vespa to see what we mean. Building and maintaining a web-site is now a cost effective option for businesses. We would like to be in a position to build a Web Directory of Clitheroe Businesses in the near future and advertise this through Clitheroe’s Newest Business Magazine – Hello Clitheroe!

Third, Business rates. Grimsey also recommends immediately reintroducing 2015 business rates revaluation to realign property values and freeze rates from 2014. Any future increases, he argues, should be based on annualised CPI inflation. We both acknowledge that Business Rates are too high and are having a damaging effect – currently working to the disadvantage of successful Businesses in more prosperous areas. Whilst both agreeing that Business Rates should be frozen for the rorseeable future we would not necessarily be in favour of an upward revaluation preferring a downward valuation which is directly related to the economic vibrancy of the High Street in which Retail Businesses especially are located.

Instead we have both been studying carefuly proposals advanced for a tax or surcharge being imposed on major retail chains and leisure groups to fund regeneration of the High Street. Making companies with a UK turnover of more than £10 million in 2014 pay a 0.25% levy would create a fighting fund of £550 million to sponsor start-ups and other high street ventures, Grimsey argues, that could entice shoppers back to local high streets.

We both think the time has come for big supermarket chains especially to put something back and help rebuild the high street.

Not content with dominating the market for groceries with a powerful combination of out-of-town centres and convenience stores, supermarkets are increasingly starting to dominate books, clothes, homewares, electrical goods and toys. They are even moving into specialist services and opening up opticians, dental surgeries and medical centres.

Supermarkets on the edge of Clitheroe Town Centre are heavy users of the local transport infrastructure especially with the volume of cars and supply waggons re-stocking stores from remote distribution and supply centres – coming in and out of Supermarket Car Parks.  Gloucester City Council is considering introducing a new levy on out-of-town superstores which could raise £1.26m a year. The levy – 8.5% of the rate on large retail outlets – would affect nine supermarkets, DIY and electrical stores outside Gloucester’s centre. This follows the example taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland and is being actively considered by the Welsh National Assembly. We will be asking our Council Officers to look into the issue and to consider similar proposals.

Fourth, Empty Shops. Grimsey also advocates that any business occupying a retail property in the retail core of a town centre that has been vacant for 12 months should receive 50% rate relief for two years. More than 11pc of shops in Britain, or 40,000 units, currently stand empty. We would like go further offering 100% rate relief for those properties that have been vacant for 6 months. The longer a Property remains unlet the less likelihood there is that it will be let in the near future at anywhere near the rentable value that a Landlord is looking for, placing pressure on the rest of their tenants as they spread Rent increases across an ever smaller pool of High Street Retailers. We will therefore be encouraging the New Town Team to work closely with Landlords & Property Agents to encourage Temporary or Short-term Lets in Vacant Properties for use as Pop-Up Shops or by New and especially Young Retailers with a Niche Product or Service Offering as part of an objective to bring greater footfall from younger shoppers back into Clitheroe.

Fifth, Funding. Grimsey proposes making it compulsory for national retail and leisure chains to invest 0.25% of 2014 sales into a local economic development fund. He also proposes that local authorities to use a portion of their reserves to offer loans to small businesses. Neither of us would disagree with the need to recognise the plight of High Street Businesses when it comes to funding and support from the High Street Banks. I don’t think that either of us would coutenance Local Rates being used to fund Retail Start-Ups but we both believe that Local Authrities should be able to bid into Larger Specialist Funding Pots than those designated for Portas Pilot Areas designed specifically for the Regeneration of Town Centre Retail Areas which Labour completely ignored during its 13 Years in Office. The problem is that the Banks are not backing Retail Businesses because they regard the Sector as inherently risky. Business Overdrafts unless backed by Security (generally the Proprietors Home) are becoming a thing of the past, especially for New Businesses with a Short Trading History. The paradox is that Independent High Street Retail Businesses become more inherently risky by being perceived as a Business Risk. The only way we can derisk the High Street is regenerating our Town Centres. It is a very simple equation.

Sixth, Cars and out-of-town retail. Today we are voting with our feet, preferring to visit huge highly accessible Out-of-Town or indeed City Centre Retail Centres such as the Trafford Centre and Liverpool One encompassing retailing, eating and entertainment. Grimsey finally argues therefore that Business plans should include two hours of free high street and town centre parking. Car parking charges to be frozen for at least 12 months. He also argues that it should be made compulsory for all mega mall developments to create a percentage of affordable space for traders and market stall pitches. Again you would not find too much disagreement from us both. We would both like to freeze Car Parking Charges for the rest of the Council’s Term of Office and to provide free Car Parking Spaces on Market Days and at the Weekend in order to encourage shoppers to visit more frequently, regularly and to stay for longer spending their disposable income to enjoy the unique shopping experience that is Clitheroe. We also may need to consider partial or temporary pedestrianisation of the Town Centre – an idea which proved especially popular and effective during the day of the Food Festival.

For Clitheroe we also need to go much further to ensure that we are able to attract the maximum amount of possible footfall both into and out of Clitheroe until late, especially during the weekends to make it an alternative shopping destination in East Lancashire. It has to be acknowledged that the frequency and regularity of both buses and trains has been a long-term issue. Ribble Valley Borough Council needs urgently to put together an integrated Transport Plan in conjunction with Lancashire County Council and the Bus & Train Companies. This is why Rural Bus Services are so important to the Economic Vitality of not just Clitheroe but also outlying Rural Villages. Rather than cutting the services we should be extending them and promoting their use.

Retail matters. It employs more than 3m people and with its supply chain it invests £135bn of net capital, much more than the Government’s entire health budget and almost three times the education budget. It borrows £65bn of the scarce resources in a banking sector apparently still strapped for the cash to lend to businesses.

We both agree with Grimsey therefore that we have to work as never before to create a new, invigorated environment that will attract people into Clitheroe Town Centres, ensuring its rebirth as a welcoming and lively community hub.

Cllr Ged Mirfin

ged@mirfin5064.freeserve.co.uk

07841 729 146

@NorthernTory

Cllr Kevin Horkin

kevin@spexopticians.co.uk

01200 423704

@KevinHorkin

Ged and Kevin are founder members of the Ribble Valley Conservative Campaign Group campaigning on issues that matter to the people of the Ribble Valley and Greenfield Conservatives campaigning on behalf of disaffected Conservatives against the increasing threat of overdevelopment on greenfield sites in the Ribble Valley