High Street issues. As a significant number of their 23 stores are situated in popular inland and coastal destinations, the news that Beales is following Debenhams into administration is not simply bad news for the UK’s troubled High Streets and traditional bricks and mortar based retail industry. It also adds to what is becoming an increasingly problematic issue for significant sections of the UK visitor economy and tourism industry.
Retail has traditionally been a significant part of the product mix in many built destinations and one or more traditional department stores, often the largest, anchor retailer in many of our popular medium to larger coastal resorts, market, historic town and smaller to larger City destinations. Where retail is part of fabric of the place there are bound to be serious issues when existing retailers suddenly begins to fail and there are equally suddenly far fewer, if any new retailers waiting to grab prime sites and other contenders, like casual dining, may be less forthcoming than they were in previous years.
The Beales sites are by nature centrally positioned and substantial in scale. Many are unlikely to be simply filled by an equivalent retail operation, whilst finding positive alternate use for such large and very often older, organically developed buildings will not be easily or quick done. This is especially true in those towns that may already be facing the loss of a Debenhams and/or are wrestling with the future use of a former BHS, House of Fraser or any one of a number of other larger scale casualties of recent retail retrenchment.
For popular urban destinations, of any scale, the problem isn’t simply about retaining the viable purpose of the High Street, largely for the immediate benefit of the local population. It is about retaining the quality of the product, the attractiveness of place, the experience and range of activities and attractions, that combined will continue to attract entirely discretionary, day and staying visitors in the sort of numbers, needed to sustain infrastructure and business activities, typically provided well in excess of that required to cater for local demand alone and increasingly doing it on a near 365 day basis.
The alternative to fixing the High Street is at worst obvious dereliction and decay in key central areas, or at best slow managed contraction towards a smaller more manageable retail hub. The latter is seldom achievable in the short to medium term or without unintended collateral damage to otherwise successful neighbouring businesses. Witness the impact of the long, slow and generally socially and economically painful restructuring of the small hotel and guest house sector, in key areas of many coastal resorts during the late 1980 and 1990s onward.
Repurposing retail and the High Street in popular destinations is as much about sustaining existing and future hotels, accommodation businesses, restaurants bars, theatres, cultural and entertainment attractions and so on, as it is about saving some semblance of a retail offer itself. Not all urban destinations rely on a strong retail offer now and in future other popular destinations may not necessarily need a strong retail offer to attract leisure and other visitors. However, in the interim as we move towards a different future, empty shops, underutilised or poor utilised buildings in prime sites and a confused presentation and proposition, resulting from the loss of existing retail, will undoubtedly act as a direct disincentive to visit and an even strong barrier to return trips. Such reputational damage, once established, tends to outlives the original cause and is, where possible, better avoided rather than painstakingly repaired after the event. Again, witness the time lag between effective regeneration measures and the resurgence of popular appeal in many of our best loved coastal resorts and inland destinations.
The immediate focus for destination development and regeneration may need to be deliberately switched away from developing accommodation, attractions and public realm, etc. across the destination as a whole, towards a major, short sharp repurposing of their core, town centre (High Street) retail areas. Albeit that this repurposing may, almost certainly must, include elements of accommodation, attractions, entertainment, public space and services, housing, offices and work space, business services etc. within it.
In parallel a root and branch review of the purpose, structure and effect of business rates, rather than just more regular reviews of charges levied under the existing system is urgently required. Repurposing our High Street without repurposing one of the most significant cost of doing business in them makes little practical sense. Leaving a known fiscal and practical barrier to business success in place while trying to restructure the physical business environment would only serve to limit the likelihood of success.
The type of radical changes to business rates that may be needed will almost certainly have significance for both Central and Local Government resource and thus by default potentially for destination management, maintenance and development. An eye to the law of unintended consequence is also therefore needed when debating the merits of any replacement for business rates.
At the same time some of the old financial certainties around private and public sector retail property holdings and rental returns are also being called in to question. This too may have financial ramification that go well beyond a simple readjustment of the base cost of doing business from traditional High Street premises. The dynamics and the interrelationship, intended or otherwise, between rates and rents also need to be interrogated and fully understood if are to find a truly sustainable future for our all High Streets and especially for those outside Central London and the core Cities. They too have issues with retail but almost certainly of a differing nature due in part to the scale of footfall and their potential customer base that they typically now enjoy.
More on the specifics of Beales at: