Leigh Sparks: Towns need space to flourish

Comment: Attracting people to live, play and work is key to the future.

Professor Leigh Sparks.

Retailing has always been one of the major business uses in high streets and town centres. As our economy and society has altered over recent decades, so our reliance on retailing to be the core of town centres has grown.

But the roles and relationships of retailing to the high street and the town centre has come under question and scrutiny.

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It is all too easy to blame the rise of out-of-town retailing for the decline of retailing in town centres – and there is obviously some relationship – but town centres have seen many of their functions removed and relocated.

Whether public or private offices, residences, hotels, leisure and creative facilities and in some cases transport hubs, town centres now provide less reasons for people to visit and less footfall for retailing to rely upon as a consequence. While retailing in town centres can be a destination in its own right, most retailing relies on multi-purpose settings.

Retailing in high streets and town centres is under pressure as never before, and at a time when retailing itself is undergoing structural change.

The rise of the internet has altered how people buy and obtain products and services, and while its market share can be overestimated, it continues to increase.

The long-term certainties of retailing have been challenged by the recession and the emergence of discount and price-focused operations. These have disrupted patterns of consumer behaviour and purchasing.

This is also true of the rise of convenience culture which has encouraged retailers to switch locations to where consumers are present, rather than retailers forcing consumers to adjust behaviour to their preferred locations (often “inconvenient”).

All these factors are threats to retailing in town centres and the evidence can be seen across Scotland with vacancies and gaps a plenty. But, we are in a process of adjustment, both for retailing and for town centres.

There is now a renewed realisation of the economic and social value of town centres, as well as the opportunities they have for digital, creative, residential, leisure and employment activities.

In many of our towns we are seeing positive signs of adjustment and development. Retailers and others are combining digital and physical operations to make the most of both channels.

Shops are recognising that they need to generate a different experience to that found online and to move away from mundane and “chore” shopping.

Towns themselves are looking to rethink their spaces to be more attractive, accessible and active.

Both retailers and towns need to provide consumers with reasons to engage with them and to spend time and money with them and in their spaces.

The future town centre needs a thriving high street, but also needs to be more than retailing.

Retail operations need a thriving town centre, based on uses and activities that attract people to live, work and play in that town. This is now being increasingly recognised and addressed and the focus is on rebuilding and re-energising high streets and town centres.

Experimentation, innovation, redevelopment, meanwhile spaces, pop-up experiments and entrepreneurial opportunities across all sectors, including retailing, have to be encouraged, nurtured and allowed to flourish.

There is much more to be done to make this a reality across all of Scotland’s 479 towns, but the shoots are there in many places; retailing, high streets and town centres have a vision suitable for Scotland’s future and can provide the social and economic communities that we all desire and deserve.

Leigh Sparks is professor in retail studies at the University of Stirling and chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership.

This article appears in the AUTUMN 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.