Monday, September 23, 2013
THERE is something Dickensian about Nottingham's shops now. Depending on where you sit in the debate about their future it is either the best of times, or the worst of times.
It has, of course, been the toughest of times for quite a while. Here we are in one of the top ten shopping destinations in this sceptred isle, and we let the boom of a lifetime pass by without getting either of our two weary old shopping centres dragged into the 21st century.
Nottingham's "achievement" really was quite outstanding. In an era when money all over the world was being rammed down the throats of some genuinely daft property developments, we got nowhere with something sane.
Time is a great healer, and a couple of experts I was chatting to last week made me think that we were somewhere between the great escape and a golden opportunity.
Matthew Hopkinson is a director of a firm called the Local Data Company, which ranks city centres by the number of empty shops.
The figures he has produced have been a poke in the eye for Nottingham's swelling retail pride, prompting an official backlash driven partly by a belief that – whether it was guns, booze or shops – Nottingham was getting a raw deal from cynical people in London. Only Hopkinson isn't from London. While that's where the Local Data Company is based, this particular statistician is a Leicestershire bloke who actually knows Nottingham quite well.
When I spoke to him at a conference in Nottingham last week he made a number of telling observations about our city.
We've worried for a while now that Derby and Leicester had got one over on us, with shiny new shopping centres which made Nottingham look like a dim-witted dinosaur.
Not so, says Hopkinson. Trading at Leicester's swanky John Lewis is at a level that suggests it wouldn't open a store in a location at this level again. And Westfield Derby appears to have done a lot for Westfield but not a lot for the rest of Derby, which is struggling with precisely the same kind of vacancy rates that have vexed Nottingham (we'll come back to that).
Hopkinson wasn't issuing an eagerly-accepted soundbite. His point was that Nottingham has the luxury of being able to learn from what had happened to its immediate neighbours.
This is their peak and they're struggling, he said. Nottingham clearly isn't at its peak because it's still waiting for major retail redevelopment to happen. Hence, there is still an opportunity for it to be the best of times.
At which point, we'll take a rain check from the chat with Matt and move on to a conversation with Bill Grimsey, who shared the stage with Mr Hopkinson at Re:Fest 2013 in Lenton, a national conference about urban regeneration.
For those of you who haven't been paying attention Mr Grimsey is the former shops chain boss whose "Alternative Future for the High Street" did what the Government and your local council wouldn't: it told a few home truths.
Town centre retailing as we used to know it, and (allegedly) love it, is dead, Grimsey says. Throwing money at a pretence that it can be revived is cynical or ignorant politicking (delete as applicable). If you genuinely want to give high streets and town centres a chance you will produce long-term plans with alternative uses for all those redundant shops units. You'll have a serious pop at Government, too, for its grotesque cynicism over business rates, a public sector tax-on-shops that has stayed ludicrously high when the market's own business rents have been falling.
But the last thing you'll do, says Grimsey, is bolt a barrel-load of new retail space on to the Victoria Centre (which is what its owners want to do). To do so when Broadmarsh is dead and some city streets dotted with vacant units would deliver to Nottingham the worst of times (or the same fate as Derby).
Would it? Well, let's finish off that conversation with Matthew Hopkinson. As he put it to me, major retailers look for locations where they'll be alongside other major retailers, even those they compete with.
And that usually means a shopping mall. Why? There'll be purpose-built service yards where lorries can deliver their goods, plentiful parking for shoppers (and not a traffic warden in sight).
If we want the best of times rather than the worst of times, perhaps it would be far, far better for us to accept that.