Readers may know this blog promotes the town centre. In the current Covid predicament, clearly the economic health of the high street is far surpassed as a concern by the public health risks of the pandemic. This is not a rallying call to head to the shops at the present time. But perhaps it is a good point to be asking questions about how we might plan for when the sun rises on a post-Covid Reading.
A photo caught my eye on Berkshire Live recently. It featured Broad Street in 1997 and was taken outside Burtons, where I worked at that time as a weekender. Although only working a few hours per week, I nevertheless paid attention to the red and black numbers scrawled on the whiteboards in the staff room. Detailed sales targets, by day, by week – year-on-year comparisons… What always struck me was that the most significant factor driving those sales figures was completely outside of my control.
I don’t want to exaggerate my point – service is clearly a key factor in the sustained success of a store, and that’s true for a chain as well as an independent. Is there someone there to ask for a different size, and can they be bothered to check? Are the sizes neatly ordered so that people find what they need within a fleeting attention span? I even remember being taught to go and fetch the basket of umbrellas from the suits section upstairs and place it by the door if it was raining. I replicated this trick of my own accord once and felt very pleased with myself for selling two umbrellas during a weekend downpour!
But there was no denying the single factor that would determine whether the number scribbled on the wall at the end of the day was going to be plus or minus. Even as a 16-year old, I could tell you that the takings of a large retailer were closely proportional to the number of shoppers on the high street that day. Busy town, busy shop. Quiet town, quiet shop. It’s that simple.
Over time certain retailers, certain brands will fall out of favour, and their product mix and pricing won’t sustain their appeal (that was probably the fate of Burtons in more recent years). But the long term recipe for a thriving high street, however its offer evolves, is healthy footfall.
There was some data published on the Covid recovery, which told an interesting story, by location, on the pre-Covid world.
What this shows, is that 58% of Reading’s weekend footfall came from outside the town, which compares to 45% in Slough and 82% in Oxford. People over-estimate the impact of the apartment boom centrally, thinking this population sustains the shopping area. This is clearly untrue. We’ve got a town of 150k people that depends on visitors for (over) half of its weekend footfall (pre pandemic). Now, let’s say in the extreme case, you lost that in its entirely. You’d therefore need to build around 75,000+ flats (for 150k people) to compensate for your loss of trade. We are (thankfully) not building anywhere near those sorts of numbers. Therefore, Reading is highly dependent on its visiting shoppers. Moreover, personally I’d rather Reading became more like Oxford than Slough. So I’d like to see that visiting proportion sustained or even increased.
We have a potential conflict here with some of the environmental campaigns. Reading’s transport plan (pg27) now talks of preventing the need for journeys in the first place as the primary aim, ahead of trying to convert car journeys to bus/bike, and then thirdly encouraging electric vehicles. I understand the need for climate action, I just think we need to be very discerning about how we apply interventions like a congestion charge. Yes, let’s charge through-traffic, and let’s go after people driving into town just to use the fast-food drive-throughs on Forbury Retail Park: they’re clogging up the town for little benefit. But let’s not slap a further charge on people driving to the Oracle for a day out where their likely spend across a number of stores underpins the vitality and range of the whole town centre and its jobs.
For a family of five in Spencer’s Wood hellbent on driving their Prius to a shopping mall to buy a new duvet, you cannot afford to turn down that trade and expect to sustain department stores and a thriving provincial retail hub. Moreover, diverting them a longer distance to Basingstoke or Bracknell actually undermines your environmental objectives.
I believe we can reconcile environmental concerns with the growth of the town centre. Recently we’ve seen far too many out-of-town leisure facilities open (and in some cases close again) in re-purposed industrial units. We’ve seen climbing walls, soft play centres, trampoline parks, ski travelators, karting tracks, clip n climb, snooker clubs… the list goes on. All of these draw in custom from a wide area and the vast majority are likely to drive. If these facilities were in the town centre, customers would have far greater chance of using public transport.
Before you say this can’t be done, let me give you a couple of examples. (Pre-Covid) when we visit family in Derbyshire, we often have a day in Derby. Not wishing to re-enforce any stereotypes, grandma and mum mooch around the indoor market hall, my brother-in-law takes his very young children to soft play, and I take my kids to bowling and mini-golf with grandpa. Everyone meets back up a couple of hours later having found something that suits them. You can do none of these activities in Reading town centre (yet). Even Basingstoke has a central trampoline park and incredibly a full sports centre right in Festival Place, including a soft play. These options underpin the draw of a town to families. And of course, as you walk past a shop you might call in and buy something, even if that purchase alone would never have justified the trip on its own, and far more likely have gone to an online seller.
It’s not like we don’t have the space for these venues. Ex-Mothercare (two floors) has stood empty for months, with permission for leisure. Two floors above Sainsbury’s have had the Hicks Baker sign of death on the door for 20 years! Friar’s Walk was marketed for leisure for years, Broad St Mall has unused basement areas, Forbury Square – an empty basement. And yet when a pool and snooker club came calling (the town lacked one for years) they’ve ended up at out at Richfield Avenue. Industrial estates = almost certainly drive; town centre = probably won’t drive. Why are we still allowing these industrial conversions when the environmental benefit and broader “critical mass” argument of the town centre is so compelling?
Thankfully we have some very positive news that the fit-outs have started for the new boutique cinema and basement golf-themed venue in the ex-Argos corner of Broad St Mall. This is exactly the sort of diversification we need. And Hollywood Bowl is confirmed for 2022, but that does involve The Oracle evicting House of Fraser, having already evicted Debenhams. (I asked the Oracle to offer some explanation for their strategy but received no response.)
A prevailing theme within feedback on the town centre is that people would like a greater presence of independent retailers. The good news on that front is that the Station Hill developers have released some further literature on their Friar’s Walk scheme, which despite being predominantly residential, includes ten units designated for independent operators.
This is a good example of why I try to cheerlead some of the bigger developments. On a small plot, a developer will plunder it for all they can with, often, minimal regard for the long term contribution of the site to the town. With a larger site, it’s worth a developer trying to “move the dial” on the quality of the immediate neighbourhood, if not the whole town. The Station Hill commitment to independent retail isn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s because they believe it will increase the desirability of the area and therefore of their rental apartments – and their scheme is big enough for that investment to be worthwhile. Sometimes bigger is better.
Whilst construction work at Station Hill is imminent, the other great white hope at the former Civic Centre is far further behind. And perhaps this is the rallying call, because the council owns this land. They should be aiming to provide as many “magnets” as possible: places that will draw people into town. A supermarket, potentially to relocate Aldi if it closes by the station? I’d like to see the council talking to residents about what they want and then doing the deals to sign them up. I may not be representative, but I’d like to see Decathlon relocate into the heart of town. Perched out there off Kenavon Drive it doesn’t function as part of the town centre retail offer, it clogs up the IDR with people unlikely to be contributing to the critical mass of the high street. They’re a chain, yet a genuine specialist across a broad range of sports, and they have a city centre format that you’ll find in Leeds and Crawley. If Forbury Retail Park is ultimately to go the way of Homebase, i.e. flats, then the council should be talking to Decathlon and cutting them a deal to provide a new home here off Hosier St. Others might make a similar argument for Matalan, which again you only need to look to Bracknell to see that they do do town centres. And what about an indoor /covered market?
Some might argue the council should just maximise the commercial receipts from their land, rather than cutting deals with specific operators, even if that means more flats. But I’d draw your attention to the recent case where the council turned down a £500k offer towards affordable housing by rejecting the demolition of the former Drew’s ironmonger. Having watched that planning committee online, I do understand the decision given the heritage considerations and the strength of local feeling. But if we can afford to turn down half a million quid to save Reading’s past, then we can equally reject the very highest bids if it means saving Reading’s future.
Above you’ll see a collection of recent evidence from other local councils of active intervention in managing their town/city centre retail and business areas. Wokingham announces new retailers like a football club unveiling new signings. Camberley has its whole shopping centre in authority ownership and is investing in a Cummings-esque big data approach. Bracknell is jointly council-run and investing further. Oxford and Swindon have examples of doing deals to bring in investment, regeneration and jobs. Newbury runs its own market. Whilst these mostly Tory-run councils seem to believe in local state intervention, Labour-run Reading is a bastion for the free market private sector approach. Isn’t that the wrong way around?
I can’t leave that paragraph without adding that Reading has a state-owned bus service. And I have no issue with our councillors. The deals they have done lately have been around providing accommodation for the homeless. Their values are always in the right place, and maybe it’s simply true that we have bigger problems to prioritise. Reading’s inward investment arm successfully markets the town and runs events to drive footfall, such as this years Christmas twilight trail. But I wonder whether there’s an element of complacency in a town that has boomed economically for so long. Post-Covid, I believe there should be further intervention – a bit more entrepreneurialism – to ensure the diversity of the town centre offer can sustain many more years of success. Why not start planning for that now?
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