We can do so much better than the current High Street business model, and its current difficulties offer Exeter new opportunities
There’s a lot of truth in the observation that Exeter’s city centre is a “clone town”. Along the length of the High Street and in the shopping centres at Guildhall and Princesshay, the retail frontage of the national chain stores far exceeds that of one-off local businesses. That’s not surprising. Exeter has long held ambitions to be the “regional capital” and having the major brands present is, whether you like it or not, a demonstration that this is a serious place with all the retail facilities that serious places are expected to provide.
This ambition underpins the Exeter’s planning policies. Unfortunately, the two main consumer sectors in the city centre – retail and food outlets – are having a fairly torrid time. In recent weeks, we have seen national announcements galore.
- Byron and Prezzo closing branches, and Carluccio’s calling in KPMG – Carillion’s auditors – for help.
- The likely closure of three New Look stores in Devon, including Exeter’s.
- The owner of Café Rouge and Bella Italia announcing major losses.
- Toys R Us and Maplin – both with Exeter branches, but outside the city centre – going into administration.
The commonly given reasons for instability in these businesses are :
- The shift to online shopping. It’s not surprising. This week I wanted a new cover for my Samsung smartphone. It’s not a recent model, and did any of the phone accessory shops in the city centre have what I needed? Of course not. I found it and paid for it on the internet in 5 minutes. It takes a big leap of faith and logic to believe that this shift is anything other than permanent.
- Less disposable income for discretionary spending. Inflation is up and exceeded the growth in annual earnings throughout 2017. It’s also worth noting that despite some trumpeting in the latest report from the Centre for Cities  of Exeter’s success in creating private sector jobs (and, by the way, how many of these are in the gig economy?), there are some substantial downsides. Particularly the finding that average weekly earnings in the city actually fell by 4.1% (£35 p.w) in 2016/17, the largest percentage fall of any of the 63 cities surveyed. And the employment rate fell by 6.4% over the same period, one of the worst performances of any UK city.
- Rising overheads. According to the BBC report, the British Retail Consortium estimates that the National Living Wage costs the industry between £1.5bn and £3bn a year. Perhaps if businesses paid their staff properly in the first place and factored this into their business plans, the NLW wouldn’t be an issue? The BRC also complains that business rates are “preventing retailers from delivering what their customers want in an efficient and cost-effective way.” Haven’t business rates always been a fact of life, guys? In the food sector, the Brexit-induced devaluation of sterling has also added to costs.
- Over-provision. It’s simple. Too many businesses chasing a static, or even declining, pool of customers. Apart from the usual run of High Street businesses, Exeter also has Princesshay, Guildhall Shopping Centre, and Queen Street Dining. These developments, and the High Street, are largely occupied by national chains, many of whom are now facing financial difficulties. If they have to close branches, Exeter has no divine right to be spared. Polpo in Queen St Dining, Swaroski jewellers in Princesshay, Jones the Bootmakers on the High Street and Jamie’s Italian in Bedford Square have all been and gone. The nearest branches are usually in Bristol. As noted above, our local economy is troubled.
It was surely recognition of these factors that informed the private sector developers’ decision last year to pull out of the scheme for redeveloping their part of the bus and coach station site. All of the four reasons above are down, directly or indirectly, to the behaviour of businesses themselves. Would you really invest in their performance?
So, we’re back to the city’s planners and their commitment to protecting the city centre. Of course cities need a centre, however vibrant their district hubs may be, and Exeter is no exception. Our best (and worst) buildings are in the centre, as are most of our entertainment venues and places where we meet. What the planners need to start asking themselves is this: does protecting the city centre equate to protecting its present retail offer, which may be in freefall?
The market may be ahead of them. In the eastern Exeter, there are now three major retail developments in prospect: on surplus police land at Middlemoor, the new Moor Exchange retail park plan, and on a Western Power Distribution site. All three are adjacent to, or close to, Honiton Road, thus setting up a new east-west retail corridor.
These edge of city developments throw down a challenge to received thinking about “protecting the city centre”. Protect from what? Protect from competition has been the local politicians’ and planners’ mantra . Yet the City Council leadership has displayed enthusiasm verging on the orgasmic at the impending opening of an IKEA store, now under construction – not in the city centre, but on the city’s furthest eastern fringe.
The major developments proposed for the east of Exeter may in these changing circumstances actually make more sense than the knee-jerk opposition to them from many in the city. As the city’s housing expands dramatically eastwards, there is a case to be made that Exeter’s centre of gravity has itself moved eastward. Allowing larger shopping areas with “High Street” brands should reduce the need to make the long slog into the city centre – often by car – for people wanting to use those stores. New purpose-built premises away from city centre congestion may allow retailers to cut operational costs and improve their long-term prospects.
And so what sort of city centre do we plan for instead? The opportunities are endless, guided only by the principle that the centre should be low-carbon and designed for people. Some of the ideas we can look at are:
- Make the High Street completely traffic-free, except for an early-morning period for deliveries where there is no rear access. Buses could use the normal diversion routes when the High Street is closed for parades, and space could be provided in the redeveloped bus station for city bus services to drop/pick up passengers and do crew changes.
- With the traffic gone, the space for people increases massively. There would be space for proper markets – not just food produce (get your greens without plastic wrapping!) but also stalls selling a diversity of locally-made products, ranging from jewellery to small furniture items, from paintings and sculpture to books and DVDs.
- Café society in all its glory. Weather permitting, Artigiano’s shows that people like sitting outside even with the buses. When the weather is less welcoming, apply the French model in which glass panes are brought out from the shop or café onto the pavement to provide warmth and shelter.
- Play spaces: games for the kids, giant chess or boules for others.
- As the big retailers move east, or go west, there will be plenty of units and pavement frontages than can be given over to new uses without involving major new construction. A policy of low rents – which the City Council as the major freeholder ought to be able to negotiate – would encourage more local businesses to emulate Fore Street. The other attractions in the High Street should increase footfall.
- The upper floors of the High Street buildings – often used for storage or not used at all – could be converted into apartments for a mix of rents (sorry, no students: you’re great but you’ve got enough flats already).
- Workshops, pop-up shops, drop-in services and much more: all would have a place.
- A permanent space for community groups to publicise themselves and win converts to their causes.
This isn’t a blueprint. There are many if, buts and downright unknowns. But isn’t that already true of current policy and practice? Let’s make a change instead.
 According to a BBC News analysis at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-43240996
 The full survey report is at http://www.centreforcities.org/publication/cities-outlook-2018/ Detailed data at http://www.centreforcities.org/data-tool/
 Though a little off topic, I can’t resist quoting from the City Council’s draft Air Quality Action Plan, currently out for consultation (accessible via https://exeter.gov.uk/aqap/summary-action-plan/ ). In Appendix B – reasons for not pursuing particular actions – the response to the construction of a tram network is: “No tram network is planned currently, as improvements to the bus network are proposed and the two modes would compete.”