Saturday, 24 April 2010

Blooming regeneration

Plans are afoot to assist retailers on Liverpool Road to improve their store fronts. Whilst this initiative is only to be welcomed one wonders about the broader context which has seen the collapse of independent retailing in Irlam, Cadishead and Eccles. Each of these places were once retail destinations in their own right, but are now littered with cheap booze shops, charity shops take-aways and empty properties - all signals of long term retail decline.

At the same time there is pent up demand to find space on the high street, from small producers, creative businesses, restaurants and cafes, plus demand for living space above shops, as a source of cheap housing.

Putting two and two together however seems to be beyond the remit of powerful landowners and local government.

The key reason why so many shops have disappeared from the high street is the growth of hugh superstores, like Tesco, and out-of-town shopping malls, like the Trafford Centre.

These businesses act like retail vacuums, in the sense that they suck up as much retail trade as possible, whilst creating a business environment which makes it impossible for even niche businesses to compete.

Another fundamental problem is that Liverpool Road remains - in the main - a no parking zone. Parking restrictions that were put in place decades ago to assist traffic flow along what used to be main road in Manchester, are no longer relevant. However, the yellow lines remain in place. And so passing trade passes by.

Retail, however, rarely figures in the urban regeneration policy. In fact for decades it has been deliberately left out of urban renewal initiatives from the local to the European level. Policy makers assume that if they can sort out socio-economic problems then the retail growth will automatically follow. This is a flawed logic. It ignores how retailing can contribute to job creation and generate local sources of wealth through the growth of independent businesses on the high street. Independent retailing needs to be protected, otherwise huge retail chains move in and suck out the profit.

To improve Liverpool Road - this is what really needs to be done:

1. Stronger planning to restrict growth of superstores

2. A withdrawal of excessive regulation of parking in declining retail areas

3. Deregulation of land use restrictions to enable the conversion of shops into alternative uses

4. Crackdown on absentee landlords who allow properties to fall into disrepair.

5. Shifting public services to empty high street locations

6. Environmental improvements to hard and soft landscaping

7. Improved public lighting schemes

8. Introduction of alternative traffic control measures which don't involve additional regulation.

9. Rent-caps to protect the supply of cheap property for low margin businesses like creative producers and artists.

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