3 January 2012

Hannukah and Christmas are gone, the seasons of lights and goodwill are done with, it’s a new year and back to blogging.

Andrew Wallis, an independent unitary councillor, had an evidence study made of the impact of the Tesco and Sainsbury supermarkets on the shopping in the centre of Helston.

Seeking evidence
I am much heartened by Wallis’s looking for evidence and thoroughly congratulate him on his approach while I acknowledge that evidence-based policy has its limitations and questions.

The study suggests that the impact of the supermarkets on the town centre shopping has been discernible but manageable though I think the period under study is necessarily short. Do read the report for yourself.

Anyway, this has prompted me to ask some wider questions about town centres and shopping everywhere and generally and well outside the Helston study.

Town centre experiences
Is it desirable to try to keep town centres full of 9-5 shops and the focus of shopping in an area? Why yes, why no?

Is shopping in or ambling around a town centre with a variety of non-chain shops, sitting places, cafes, and open spaces and opportunities to meet friends an attractive experience that adds to an individual’s happiness and indeed to the sum of human happiness?

Can these experiences be had only in vibrant town centres?

Do such town centres draw in people who would not otherwise visit the area and thus help the local economy through employment and the churning of goods and money?

Do town centres have to be morgues after six in the evening and rowdy after ten?

The effects of life changes
Have life and shopping habits changed significantly and in a way that makes town centre shops inherently much less financially viable? Have cars and mothers working – a big change from the fifties for example – made out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls a better deal for foot customers all round: generally, more choice, pretty much one-stop shopping for most daily stuff, easier car parking, and lower prices.

For most people have the days of shopping in small parcels through the week in town centres and by bus been replaced by one big shop once a week by car at an easy supermarket?

How does expanding online shopping affect town centres? Is it making the present town centre shop an outdated and expensive model, especially for white and technical goods?

Even in Cornwall do vast undercover shopping malls have a role in foot shopping that challenges the town centres of small traders?

Intervention 1
Should we intervene to help town centre shopkeepers and their employees to continue to earn a living in the same way and same place? For example, should we subsidise town centre car parking and manipulate rents/rates to help town centre shops compete with out-of-town supermarkets; and should we use the planning system to intervene to try to keep town centres viable? (Incidentally, more or less some of the points of the recent Mary Portas report as far as I can see.)

If town centres are part of human happiness (see question two), should we subsidise them in some way if that is necessary for their continuance?

Are not subsidies an argument to be made not a claim to be asserted, a point I raised in this post.

Intervention 2
Is the only legitimate role for councils and government to promote competition and variety in shops, leaving the rest to customer choice?

How do we keep competition flourishing to benefit customers and the economy? Are town centre shops an essential part of the competition? How do we encourage innovation and efficiency?

New retail models
Is the idea of the retail town centre obsolescent? Are councils trying to keep a corpse alive? Why not let customers, what economists elsewhere call the market, decide: town centre, supermarket, shopping mall, online, a mix? What would happen if we did stand back?

Actually, might we be witnessing the migration of town centres to alternative out-of-town, new, and often weather-proof retail centres that include supermarkets and small, individual shops, and such useful facilities as libraries and post offices?

Should we be planning for this?

Are supermarkets naturally evolving into large general stores selling not only food but also mobile phones and clothes? Is this a change to be welcomed or resisted?

Could we individualise large out-of-town shopping centres while retaining their efficiencies?

Should the default be to manage change or resist it?

Is spitting in the wind ever a good idea?

There are no universally agreed answers (apart from the spitting one) and I’m not giving mine here. You’re on your own with this.

Oh, and here’s a story about a supermarket getting it very right.