Oxford is a beautiful city, of that there is no doubt, but put together its historic street layout, listed buildings, and the colleges who own most of it, and it’s a pretty toxic mixture for retailers. Just like York and similar cities its streets are clogged with tourists and cars, and the City Council has tried to ease the blockage with a combination of sky high parking charges and a park and ride scheme which find no favour with local traders.
Any way you look at it Oxford has never been great for shopping. City centre traders can’t seem to figure out who they serve. Is it residents, tourists and day trippers, or the vast transient population of students from its two universities? The main shopping thoroughfare, Queen Street, and nearby pedestrian areas are a mish-mash of high street chains that don’t seem to serve anybody’s needs very well, but there are interesting enclaves, and at one end of the shopping area is Oxford’s famous Covered Market. It’s both tourist hotspot for those in search of ‘authentic’ Oxford, and historic pervayor of fresh foods to residents and colleges alike. At the other end is the ‘never-quite-successful’ Westgate Centre which has no visible anchor and is an odd mix of middling retail offers. Plans for its redevelopment have been bogged down for approaching two decades, and it’s a bit of a sickly child.
So the city is an uneasy mixture of the old and the newish, and I suspect that most residents of greater Oxford source their everyday needs from satellite centres like, Cowley, Rose Hill, Summertown, Headington, and Botley Road, and only venture into the centre if they really must. Now, however it is faced with so many retail redevelopments its mind boggling, and a text book example of how lack of planning, laissez faire development , and competing interests can go awry, with the residents and traders of Oxford potentially the ultimate losers.
At one end of town the cash strapped City Council is trying to impose rent increases reported to be as high as 70% on the Covered Market traders. Many, faced with falling footfall exacerbated by lack of short stay parking, say this is the final straw and that the market will soon be lost to the ubiquity of the multiples who can afford the rents. Meanwhile at the other end of the town, plans to redevelop the Westgate Centre, and double its size to seventy units at the cost of £400 million, are back on track again.
So far so good! Nobody denies Westgate needs serious attention, but those of a suspicious frame of mind might see this as a classic ‘Daniel and Goliath’ scenario. But now throw in the plans, which have just been given the go ahead, to revamp Seacourt Retail Park, about two miles west of the city centre, at a cost of £15 million to create a reported extra 5,000 sq. metres of retail space in ten new units; but with the loss of a local amenity – the only petrol station on that side of the city. And finally, factor in plans by Doric Properties to tear down Elms Parade – a row of popular local, 1930’s vintage, shops – in favour of a multi-screen cinema, chain restaurant, and large supermarket. A development, it should be acknowledged, that is not 1000 metres from the Seacourt Retail Park, and which will reportedly involve the demolition of a church and valued sheltered accommodation for forty elderly residents!
It’s a classic dilemma! In the city centre a beacon of independent retail and bastion of the foodie culture is being squeezed to death, meanwhile on the outskirts unnecessary, unwanted and unproductive retail space is being allowed at the expense of local amenities. I’m not against retail development, far from it, but can’t developers and planners see that the writing is on the wall for such developments? Haven’t they noticed the revolution in ecommerce that means we need far less shops than we did during the consumer bubble? Haven’t they cottoned on to the fact that major multiples don’t need 400 units to achieve national coverage anymore and can get the same results with a fraction of the space and a great transactional website? Hasn’t their dinner table chat revealed to them that a diminishing number of their friends and colleagues set off for the office every day, but work from home or car?
A decade or more of rampant consumerism disguised some shoddy retail offerings undeserving of loyal support. Plus a bloated property market has fuelled speculative shop building to the point where we simply have too many. Shops in the wrong places, the wrong size, built as a sop to planners, or built for ego sake. Shops that nobody wants, needs, supports, or values. So why do property companies and pension funds plough on with their pointless and ill fated retail schemes regardless of the evidence that is all around them? Why are they locked into a mind-set that discounts the new reality?
We’ve been woefully over shopped for more than a decade, and the superstore mentality has leeched the life blood out of too many wonderful towns whilst at the same time our growing population is crying out for homes that are close to amenities, work opportunities and travel hubs. It’s not as though either Seacourt or Botley can be justified as being incubators for new retail talent or offering a leg up to emerging businesses in dire economic times. They’re only outcome will be to further subdivide a diminishing retail cake. Why not keep the 1930’s shops and the petrol station and the local amenities, but tear down the empty shops and offices and replace them with homes?
Aren’t better shops rather than more shops the answer for Oxford and many other cities?
So another series of Channel 4’s Mary Queen of the High Street has come to a close and once again it’s time to pop down town and see what progress has been made. It’s a year since The Portas Review was handed to the government and still, despite Portas’ best efforts, her conclusions have been mainly ignored by bureaucrats with much huffing and puffing about the localism agenda that was supposed to breathe new life into communities and restore decision making to the grass roots.
At the time of its launch Portas said she wasn’t prepared to let her report end up gathering dust on a shelf in some government department, the fate of its fifteen predecessors. Having been sceptical initially I welcomed the twenty eight point vision that was the result of her deliberations, but from the very start I warned that politicians would adopt the sexy attention grabbing bits but kick the difficult stuff into the long grass.
So it has proved, with much vaunted competitions for meagre grants towards town teams making headlines, but the difficult stuff being ignored. However, Portas is nothing if not a fighter and has the chutzpah and the media presence to keep the issue alive on our television screens, hopefully keeping politicians on their toes to boot. Mind you they seem pretty immune to embarrassment to me – shrugging off their promises without a backward glance – so even Mary has a job on, and with no help from retail pundits who have been queuing up to give her a kicking. Personally, I may not like her style and find her programmes formulaic, but I can’t fault her energy!
The problem as I see it is that shopkeepers and customers alike are looking for a saviour – someone to magic all the nastiness away – and that isn’t going to happen without a paradigm shift. It took over a decade of greed, mismanagement and neglect for high streets to get this bad and it will take at least as long for them to be revived. Portas may come across as the pantomime dame of retail to some commentators but at least she has the presence to embarrass others into action. And that includes small retailers, who must shoulder their fair share of the blame for surrendering to complacency and cynicism.
Liskeard, which featured last in the series, seemed a pretty good example of all that is wrong with the high street. Not only were rent, rates, and parking a real problem as in most small towns, but the shopkeepers seemed to have surrendered all responsibility for their immediate environment to some higher power. Look how excited they all were when Portas ‘empowered’ them to clean up their own street. Hadn’t anybody ever thought of scrubbing their front step before? It appears not! The demise of the livestock market and the laissez fair approach to town planning – which had landed them with an out of town supermarket – had also contributed to their woes; sucking the life out of the centre – and most of the shopkeepers – or so it would seem. With few exceptions they appeared to have fallen into the familiar ‘somebody should do something’ mindset, and yet were deeply resentful when somebody did! That and the very ‘independence’ which is both the blessing and the curse of small business people looked destined to blight any thought of collective action.
But, to be fair they’re not small shop keepers because they’re marketing strategists, schooled in creating brand identity and fostering loyalty to it. Nor have they been rigorously trained, or selected for their special business aptitude. The big retailers are, plus they’re not hamstrung by feelings of loyalty or a sense of belonging. If a project fails, they simply walk away leaving their mess behind; small retailers just don’t see things in the same way as their bigger brethren! But apart from the obvious structural and conceptual barriers, the traders of Liskeard also appeared to lack leadership, motivation, and vision, or a channel for their rage against faceless landlords and unbending bureaucracy that renders them impotent. Portas herself came in for some flak for allegedly being in the government’s pocket, a charge she vehemently denied! Personally, I reckon she should give up trying to fix broken high streets single-handedly; her critics can stop kicking her for not being the saviour of their dreams; and she can get on with doing what she does best – irritating people!
If we really want to save the high street we should encourage her to irritate the hell out politicians, landlords, bureaucrats, and the forces of ubiquity and mediocrity that have brought us to this shameful state. Isn’t it time the dust was blown off the Portas Review, and politicians got to grips with series issues contained within? Come to that why aren’t all shopkeepers demanding an explanation from government?
I’ll soon be promoting my services through this page – but whilst we get this webpage up and running, feel free to get in with me via my contact page.