It’s a New Year. More than any point in the calendar it is a time for reflection and predictions of what lies ahead. Retail matters hugely in Ludlow, not just for our daily shop but to bring in the visitors that give our town centre its buzz.
Around the country, town centres are losing their buzz as trade is dragged out of town by vast retail parks or hoovered up by the growing retail power of the internet. Ministers and councils have spent decades overseeing the decline of town centres. They are now panicking and desperate to find ways of resuscitating failing high streets. But they are no longer interested in retail. They want shops replaced by homes.
Is this the future for Ludlow town centre? I don’t think so. We are happy being Ludlow and should remain that way.
It was the Saturday between Christmas and New Year. I needed a few essentials and dropped into town for a shop and a beer. The town was buzzing. People were everywhere. They were squeezing through the narrows of King Street just like a spring day.
Settling in for that pint, I read the papers, in print and online. “Death of the high street”, they screamed. HMV is going into administration. Chain retailers have collapsed or are being slimmed down. Among them are New Look, Toys R Us, House of Fraser, Debenhams, Maplin, Homebase, Poundworld, Mothercare and many other chains I have never heard of. Even M&S is closing 100 stores. Profits at the upmarket John Lewis have collapsed. The Telegraph’s store chain tracker said 1,300 stores had closed by mid-December.
On Sunday, the stories in the newspapers were worse. The Sunday Express “exclusively” reported a prediction by Professor Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research under the banner headline of “10,000 more shops to close”. The Sunday Mirror exclusively reported the same story. The Mail on Sunday reported detailed research prepared for it by Professor Joshua Bamfield. The Sun also got in on the story. (The reality is that an “exclusive” for the press is now as exclusive as popping in for a cheap pint of bitter at Wetherspoons.)
Not for the first time, we are reading dire portents for the future of our high streets.
It is all rather frightening. The growth of internet commerce is a major factor. According to one survey, shoppers buy 80% of non-food items online. That sounds on the high side but the Financial Times reported that online sales of non-food items have soared from 12% of the market in December 2012 to 24% in December 2017. The Telegraph said that 18% of all sales are now through the internet.
People seem to have fallen out of love with the high street. There are over 27,000 empty premises in England’s town centres. Investment in shopping centres around the UK has dropped to its lowest level since 2008. Boxing Day footfall dropped for the third consecutive year.
The government is floundering in its attempts to help. Having welcomed out of town retail parks for decades and recently hiked business rates for town centre retail premises, it has belatedly set aside £675 million to reinvent high streets. Its aim is not to revive high streets as retail venues but as community hubs. In the summer, ministers commissioned retailer John Simpson to review the future of high streets. He concluded that high streets have twice as many shops as they need and empty units should be converted to housing. Gone will be the days when people drive or bus into town centres from out of town to shop. They will live in the town centre and drive out of town to shop, or just wait impatiently for the Amazon courier to arrive.
John Timpson’s report is very aligned with the government agenda and may not fade into obscurity the way the higher profile Portas Review did a few years back. But it is unlikely to help our high streets remain thriving retail hubs.
Over the last three years, just ahead of the dire portents from Timpson and the Sunday tabloids, local councils have splashed out over £800 million on buying shopping centres in the hope of making a buck or two while revitalising their struggling town centres. My view is that local government is taking a punt on a horse that has already fallen at the first fence.
But councils are like that. They were mesmerised by the Icelandic banks, until they collapsed. Some are now suing UK banks over Lobo loans they thought would solve their financial problems. That was until they realised it was expensive to pay the money back.
Councils have a major role in managing town centres through the planning system and support for retailers. But I have yet to be convinced that councillors and council officers can make shopping centres pay when the toughest minded retailers in the land cannot make enough money to cover their costs.
All this seems a world away from my Saturday morning stroll around Ludlow. The town was its usual busy self with a thriving market and busy shops, pubs and cafes. That’s because Ludlow is distinctive. We have two greengrocers, three butchers, three bakers and around 80 independent traders in all. It’s a place you want to come to even if it’s a bugger to park at times and too expensive to park on-street. Our town centre thrives at the very point others seem beyond resuscitation.
Ludlow has challenges ahead. Not just in the changing nature of the retail trade but in the planning system too. We are expecting proposals for new retail units at Rocks Green to be submitted in January. Many people will welcome proposals for signature stores on the edge of town. Others will fear that town centre trade will drop as a result. Why struggle to find a parking space in town when you can pick up your supplies just off the A49?
The likelihood is that the Tesco and Aldi will suffer directly from any out of town retail stores. That could create a knock-on effect on independent traders. Many people do a mixed shop. They buy their basics at one of the supermarkets. Then they go into the centre to shop at the independent stores and the market.
We are not likely to see any new supermarkets on the outskirts of Ludlow built in 2019. It will take several months to get final planning permission. After that the retail outlets must be built. For that we need a stable retail market. Progress could stall at any point. That gives us a couple of years to ensure we remain one of the nation’s top market town brands and to be strong enough for the decades to come.
We have so much going in our favour. There are very few vacant retail units in our town and soon the Feathers Hotel will reopen. We are a distinctive town, quirky at times. We are what they call “a destination”.
As for the government’s wish to reinvent the nation’s high streets as community hubs, ministers could do no better than dropping into Ludlow. Maybe Ludlow MP could invite the minister for high streets down our way? That would show that Ludlow is a community hub. A ministerial tour might start at Ludlow Brewery, where many convivial business meetings are held. Cutting through Tesco, we have the Bags for Help scheme and more. The Feathers has long provided community meeting spaces for free, as have the Rose and Crown and the Blue Boar. Coffee shops like Costa host community meetings. We have the Working Together café, the Assembly Rooms, the Women’s Centre and so much more.
Our town centre thrives as a community hub and a retail . But that doesn’t mean it serves everyone’s needs.
Many people in town want the sort of shopping experience they can get elsewhere. Cheaper shops. More varied shops. This is probably never going to happen. We are not big enough to attract big format stores like Primark. We have a population of 11,300 and a catchment area of 20,000 people or so. That’s not enough for the big retailers now.
There will probably never be an Asda in Ludlow or a Primark. We won’t get a Sainsbury’s unless it’s a local store. There is still scope with the Rocks Green site to introduce distinctive brands. But decisions about who moves on site and what they retail are not in the powers of local or national government.
In this very uncertain retail market, we could only do one thing in Ludlow. Concentrate on what we do best. That’s independent traders and a fantastic market. This model won’t serve everyone’s retail needs. People will need to drive to shop. They must use the internet and await couriers.
Our high street will change as all others are doing. We will become a town centre more about experience that buying goods. The ubiquitous plague of coffee shops will grow (sorry, I have nothing against coffee shops, I just hate coffee). Gin palaces, which are on the up right now, will fade and be replaced by the latest craze for boozing on hoof.
There are dangers ahead.
Ludlow could drift inexorably downwards to become a town centre like so many others where at least one quarter of the retail units are vacant. We can become a town where footfall plummets down month on month, year on year.
A better way forward is for Ludlow to be happy being Ludlow. To celebrate our independent spirit and our independent traders. We must champion Ludlow even while other town centres slide into oblivion.
No one knows the future of any town centre, including Ludlow’s. We have a great town centre. Hundreds of people have worked hard to ensured that its success. Whatever the tabloid headlines scream, we must ensure that Ludlow continues to thrive.