Being a bit different…

I gave a talk last week in nottingham for WREN – the Womens Real Estate Network. I’m not quite sure how I managed to be talked into the gig – but I did. And the subject was one which I feel passionately about.

BTP

We managed in 30 minutes to cover The Grimsey Report and what that means for Nottingham.

It is a big subject area – and the audience being primarily girls (aka professional shoppers) this had me slightly worried. But I think we were on the same page! There was an interesting debate after the ‘death by powerpoint’ part – and I think people are starting to understand what we need to do.

Some of the points made were that the growth of the small, quirky independent has a real future part to play. The competitive shelf life of products is getting shorter – our boredom threshold is low! The physical space for retailing needs to differentiate itself – this is key. Retailing needs to be treated like theatre – its a show – act up!

The Grimsey report made mention of the importance of connectivity in technical terms. There is a necessity to embrace technology – we are constantly playing catch up. I was interested to see a statistic appear in the week which suggested tha internet users in China now number now 1.5 times the US population!

In some of the research I was doing for the talk I came across the Boston Tea Party coffee shop – this is a social hub which sells great coffee – but it mixes in art and artists performing. They also support local organisations. You can’t help but ‘like’ this sort of operation?

Can Nottingham rise to the challenge

Bill Grimsey was in town again this week; as one of the speakers at Re:Fest. In fact it was more of a launch (again) of his alternative review of the High Street.

bill_grimsey

There was an an assembled panel – Grimsey, Chris Shellard, Matthew Hopkinson (the Local Data Company) and Cllr Nick MacDonald from Nottingham City Council. There was an assembled crown too – a mixture of national regeneration specialists and local folks with an interest in the subject.

Grimsey was on sparkling form. He had, of course, used Nottingham for the case study in his review. I was delighted he did this – and I had an opportunity to shape that.

He does acknowledge that it is going to take some time to for us to revive the patient – years perhaps. But we need a plan – a business Plan for the High Street. It needs to have a vision for the next 20/30 years. And everything the City does needs to take account of that plan. It isn’t difficult?

But there are some things we also need to do now. We must lobby this blinkered Government on the Rating Revaluation debacle. We cannot wait until 2017 for the revaluation – it has been put back 2 years. The reason is that business doesn’t like uncertainty. Of course business doesn’t like unfairness either. Rates are based on the 2008 rental values – most of which were set in the boom. They need correcting as values in the south have probably recovered whilst in the north they certainly haven’t. This is a national disgrace and politicians need to be reminded about this at every chance.

But the real message from Grimsey was that Nottingham has a real opportunity here – we have some brilliant assets – but we don’t use them – The Castle, Robin Hood – you know the drill. It doesn’t make sense to build more shops in the Victoria Centre when Broad Marsh is on its knees.

I was pleased that Nick MacDobnald embraced the report – suggesting that we should go to Government and get some cash to start delivering some of the recommendations.

Overall I think it was a positive discussion – we just now need to work out how to drive this forward…

Retail hits the news again

The Centre for Retail Studies have just issued their report on the next 5 years for retailers. It’s not pretty.

NYC_raw 17

The background is that Store vacancy rates (according to the Local Data Company) across the country have increased from 5.4% in December 2008 to 14.1% in March 2013 , a rise of 161%. Nottingham has had its fair share of bad PR about this.

But the CRS are suggesting that the vacancy rate by 2018 could be 20% They also anticipate:

* store numbers will fall by 22%, from 281,930 today to 220,000 in 2018.
* Job losses could be around 316,000 compared to today
* The share of online retail sales will rise from 12.7% (2012) to 21.5% by 2018

What is certain is that our city centres are changing – as our methods of shopping change.

It is clear that we have too many shops. But it is difficult to coherently close sections of our high street in a change of use. Dead frontages are bad news.

Whoever comes up with an answer to all of this is going to be a hero. We have to find a way of making our shopping interesting again. It has to compete with on line – or offer a different experience. Experience shopping will be key. It needs to become a leisure activity.

When I was in New York a few weeks ago it struck me that a lot had changed in a year. Shops had closed and others had opened. The changing backdrop makes for an interesting experience. The monolithic monster boxes of ‘we sell everything to anyone’ are surely numbered? Thank goodness.

The Big Apple …

Although I have been in the ‘States this year, it is over a year since I have been in New York. It was definitely time to put that right!

new_york-food-funny

This is my favourite City. It’s really hard to pin down quite why. After all, it’s quite grungy and imperfect in lots of ways. It has (what Jackie Sadek would call) ‘urban grain’. It has soul.

Although there are big shops here – the best part of the place is in the lower part of Manhattan (around SOHO and The Village) where the scale is much more human. The shops are often independent. The mix re-defines eclectic.

I think the other thing you notice is that it is an ever changing back-drop. Although it is year since we I was here, some of the streets have changed completely. In some cases this is not for the better. One brilliant shop was Mxyplyzyk – which had been in The Village for 22 years, but closed last December. The owner claimed that taxes were putting him out of business. So, a similar experience to the UK then?

But the place lives on. If you want to come and see a real, living, breathing place – this is it. I know of no other place I have been where you can buy almost anything – day or night.

Although one of the key reasons this place survives and re-morphs itself is the sheer number of people here – it also survives and grows because it is not afraid of trying new things. There are new little shops everywhere!

We can learn a lot…

Nottingham – empty shops?

We have ongoing discussions with the Local Data Company and their assertion that 30.6% of our shops are empty. I blogged about it here.

PopUpBritain-interior-food

Experian have suggested that the figure is 18.1% – which is probably a closer reflection. The Local Data Company stretch the definition of City Centre to a lot of the outlying suburbs. We have a plan to deal with this and try to properly reflect the position – more on that soon I hope!

What we cannot escape though is that we have too many shops.

Vacant shops don’t help Cities. They create gappy teeth in a street scene and ‘dead frontage’ (as it is known) is not at all good. It takes a few in a row to bring a whole area down.

So we have a few choices – we can either take the shops out of use (and there is some new Planning legislation to do this) and into another use. Or we can try to encourage new shops to spring up. I had a fantastic meeting a few weeks ago with Pop Up Britain – who seek to do this. They put temporary uses into places – often local people selling local goods. Again we hope to have some of these in Nottingham soon.

But there is another initiative launched last week by the City Council – in the form of grant aid to bring ‘out of repair’ shops back to a lettable standard.

The Vacant Shops Grant will be available to Landlords of up to £5,000 to improve the condition a shop.

This is a great idea – and a really positive step to take.

The Nottingham Story – Part 2 – The Big Picture?

Day 2. The Big Picture – do we really get it?

If I’m honest – probably not. I have a fear that Nottingham doesn’t see beyond the end of its nose. It thinks that it has always been the Queen of the East Midlands and therefore always will be. This is dangerous complacency. Especially when you see the progress our two neighbouring cities are making. Derby and Leicester may be the underdog of old, but we have steadily watched them creep up on us. If we’re not careful they will overtake us.

We are slipping. Especially in the important area of shopping. The Westfield sale to CSC of Broad Marsh Centre hasn’t helped us. It has probably set us back 10 years. This isn’t entirely a fault of the City management – it’s a combination of a woeful Planning organisation a few years ago with a collapse in the property market.

So what is the big picture – well it’s a place that people want to live, work and play in. Live in great neighbourhoods, work in rewarding places and play in safety. Play includes all leisure activities – including shopping!

We have started to make some progress in improving the infrastructure – including the tram and transport generally. But the costs of getting around on that system are too expensive. Parking costs in the city are nothing short of outrageous. I frequently pay £9 to park – this is a joke. We need to encourage visitors. Evening parking should be free. Not a charge to pay for the traffic wardens who patrol the streets.

We need to increase the tourist offer – and this is the greatest crime of all. We own Robin Hood. And we own Nottingham Castle – home of the Sheriff of Nottingham. So why don’t we use them? The Castle is a shambles – a poor cafe and a sad exhibition. The Cave tour is pathetic.

But, we do know that Robin Hood isn’t enough on his own….

Part 3 tomorrow… our story?

Charity shops – illegal?

You might have started to notice a proliferation of Charity Shops on our High Streets. It isn’t, in my view a good sign. Our measure of aspirational shopping – which leads to a feel-good factor doesn’t normally include Oxfam and the like. I have nothing against these shops – they do serve a purpose – but there is a point at which they can destroy a street-scene.

One of the reasons we have seen the growth is not necessarily them selling ‘cheap’ goods – although that does have a part to play in the current economic climate. There is another reason – landlords are pay full business rates on empty commercial properties, but charities using commercial property for charitable purposes qualify for an 80% automatic discount on business rates – plus a discretionary further discount of 20%.

This clearly can be a good deal for the landlord – and likewise for the Charity tenant. Despite the Governments contention that the removal of empty rate relief encourages landlords not to leave premises vacant we all know that this is rubbish. My landlord clients don’t wait for a rising market – they do deals with people who come along.

But something interesting has now happened. The Charity Commission is investigating over 700 deals between charities and landlords where concerns have been raised by local authorities that the properties appear to be unoccupied and that the arrangements may constitute business rates avoidance. This is because we have seen a new phenomena. This is where the Charity make an approach and offer to ‘take’ the premises with some form of sharing – i.e. the landlord pays the Charity (because anything less than the Rates bill is a saving!). They don’t occupy they simply pocket the cash.

The Charity Commission are now saying that they will look closely at these ‘arrangements’ and the Charities might fall foul of the law.

The angle taken is to see that Charities are not being taken advantage of by business…

This I find rather amusing – my dealings with Charities suggest that some (not all) of them know precisely the position they occupy and use it to further their interests. Fair? – I’m not sure. But this little loophole might now get closed – and with it comes more misery for landlords and more vacant shops on the High Street.

Town Centre Shops – the future

We can all see the way in which retailers are currently headed. It is reckoned that there are over a dozen High Street names who are ‘at risk’ of failure. Their December Quarters rents are shortly due – unless that have made arrangements to shift payments to monthly frequencies.

This week Mary Portas is expected to publish a report tomorrow on the state of retailing – and her plan to get it to recover from the doldrums.

It is understood the report covers the issues about out-of-town shopping centres vs. In-town. You don’t have to be a planning expert to what these out of town centres have done to our Cities. They offer huge choice, easy access and generally free parking. That you can drive your car to shop door is seen as a high advantage. When they started this was all about ‘big box’ goods – but not so any more.

Of course the Supermarkets have followed suit; the latest stores are the size of most neighbourhoods. They too rely on you parking next to the store.

It is suggested that Mary Portas will address this issue – and either suggest a levelling of the playing fields – in suggesting out of town charge for parking (which sounds unlikely!) or – Cities should stop looking at parking as a revenue stream. This too looks to be challenging – especially in an era of financial austerity. But there is a point here. In the last week or so I have spent a large sum in Nottingham’s car parks. The minimum charge in the centre is now £3.50 I followed a lady who was tutting about her £11.00 charge!

We have to find ways of making our centre’s attractive = the alternative is they will decline very quickly. My view is that it is a slippery slope – and we are atop it at the moment.

I have little hope in Nottingham though – if you go to a meeting at the City Council now – you get charged £4.00 to park at Loxley House.