Tuesday 25 October 2011

Failure breeds failure

There’s been a lot of talk recently of the decline of traditional high streets, with retail guru Mary Portas being appointed to head a government task force looking into how to revive them. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect on the business of town-centre pubs. In reality, the various parts of town centre economies have a strong degree of interdependence and can’t be considered in isolation.

The Centre for Cities has looked at second-rank provincial towns and cities like Sunderland and Preston (a category that would also include Stockport):
In Sunderland’s case the city centre suffers from a lack of scale – out-of-town employment sites limit the number of commuters into the centre each day. This limits footfall which in turn limits lunch time and evening demand on the High Street and in restaurants and bars.
It seems fairly obvious that a thriving employment sector will benefit both shops and pubs. However, they argue that simply limiting out-of-town development is unlikely to have much impact, and that much more attention needs to be given to the positive factors that will increase activity in town centres.

It works the other way, too, as Leg-Iron points out here. Deter people from visiting pubs, and they won’t visit the nearby shops either.

It also doesn’t help when local councils take measures, for whatever reason, that lead to a reduction in town centre footfall. For example, I saw the following comment on another blog:
In my local town the council have:

- raised all the car parking charges
- closed one large car park completely
- pedestrianised the High Street
- lowered the speed limit on all the approach roads
- installed loads of speed bumps
- installed loads more traffic lights at minor junctions
- closed all the public toilets
- closed the two theatres
- demolished the ice rink

and there's probably more that I can't think of just now.

And guess what (1) - the High Street is full of empty shops, charity shops, pound shops, and short-term tat generally and also guess what (2) the same council is wringing its hands wondering how it can save the High Street.

It's a cliché, but you couldn't make it up.
One would expect that particular town (which I think is one of the London boroughs) has also experienced numerous pub closures, although no doubt one of the more down-market Wetherspoons is doing OK next to the 99p store. Pedestrianisation of town centre streets, while it may create a more attractive retail experience during the daytime, can all too easily turn them into intimidating dead zones once the shops have closed.

It also has to be recognised that, just as with pubs, a range of social changes are working against high street shopping. Most of the closed pubs are never coming back, and neither are most of the 25% of shops currently vacant in some town centres. There needs to be a focus on what works in the 21st century context, not a naïve belief that a bit more stimulus will bring the good old days back.

Another idea that has been expressed to me is that the revival of residential development in town and city centres has proved beneficial in sustaining the pubs in those areas. However, I’m not entirely convinced that’s a particularly strong factor. As I’ve argued before, the idea that the typical pattern of pub use is to come home, have your tea and go out for a few pints is very much exaggerated, and the presence of nearby chimneypots is no guarantee of trade. To a large extent, people visit pubs because they’re out and about doing other things. That pubs in Manchester city centre are conspicuously thriving when in many other places they’re not is a function of the city centre being a strong hub for retail, employment, entertainment and public transport, not because a lot of new flats have been built there.


  1. >-raised all the car parking >charges
    >-closed one large car park >completely
    >-pedestrianised the High Street
    >-lowered the speed limit on all >the approach roads
    >-installed loads of speed bumps
    >-installed loads more traffic >lights at minor junctions

    Thumbs up to the council for those points at least.
    If that blogger got out of his beloved car he might smell some cleaner air.
    He might even be able to have more than two pints because he's not driving - might help keep the pubs open.

  2. But deterring people from visiting by car will reduce the overall footfall and have a knock-on effect on the viability of all sectors, including pubs. Pubs get a lot of their businesses from diners, not just boozers.

    They won't suddenly decide to go by bus instead - the shoppers will decamp to the local equivalent of Meadowhall, while businesses will look to relocate to somewhere their employees and visitors can park.

    But hey, better a dying town centre than one that is welcoming to car users, eh?

  3. I agree it's the Meadowhells that are the problem. They shouldn't have been built in the first place.
    As always, we can learn from the rest of Europe how to run town centres which aren't extended car parks. Although of course they were never stupid enough to go the "out of town" route in the first place.
    Some sort of tax incentive / deterrent to get businesses out of Meadowpants back into town centres?

  4. The regeneration of town and city centres to provide more living accommodation has to be a good thing for the pubs in the centre.

    In the daytime/during business hours these pubs will need plenty of footfall for their trade, but at night they will rely on 'locals' for their trade. I'm not talking about big cities like Birmingham and Manchester where there is always something going on in the centre to attract people in.

    I'm talking about smaller towns like Stourbridge, Kidderminster, Rugeley or Rugby all of which I've visited on my canal trips. On midweek nights these town centres are largely deserted and what few pubs that remain are very, very quiet. If more people lived in the town centres then there would be more people around who would want to visit their 'local'.

    I'm not suggesting that it would save the pub, but it would go some way to help in many small towns around the country.

  5. There is no need to second guess where our "town centres" are heading. The model is tried and tested and we are just sleepwalking towards it - look no further than the USA and the "malls" that have replaced town centres as focus for footfall.

  6. A trend which is only encouraged by a policy of actively deterring people from visiting town centres.

    As often said on here, it is ultimately a policy blind alley of attempting to sustain declining business sectors and locations simply by curbing the development of new ones.


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