Bill Grimsey has spent a lifetime at the top of retailing in the UK, Hong Kong and South Africa, during which time he regarded it as his mission ‘to clone every town in the UK with the same brands’. And he did, and in the process, as he readily acknowledges, he put paid to ‘thousands of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers’.
‘It’s a bitter pill to swallow,’ he says, ‘when you realise that what you spent your whole life building now needs to be unpicked in order to build back a better place.’
Since then Grimsey has remade himself as an advisor on town and city centres, beginning with a report in 2013 that resulted in the Labour Party appointing him an advisor. A second report was published in 2018 and the latest Grimsey Review, Build Back Better: Covid-19 Supplement for Town Centres, was published this month. I heard about it last week when Grimsey was interviewed on R4’s Today programme.
Now while his report smacks resoundingly of poacher turned gamekeeper, I have to concede that if you are looking for an analysis of why ‘business-as-usual’ retail redevelopment of high streets and town centres can’t possibly work, Grimsey knows where the bodies are buried. He even knows how a good many of them got there — and why.
His view is that even before the Covid-19 crisis, there were no viable plans that could revitalise high streets and town centres from a retail perspective. Three sectors of the town centre economy — retail, retail property, and pubs and restaurants — were, he says, already ‘broken’. 47% of retailers and 59% of pub and club operators were at risk of financial failure, while investment in retail property and investment in shopping centres had fallen by 42% and 78% respectively between 2014 and 2018.
Grimsey’s central thesis is this. Covid-19 is massively accelerating town and city centre changes that have been evident for years. We simply have too much retail space and the devastation begun by online shopping will be completed by Covid-19. If recovery planners believe that high streets and town centres will be saved by retailing, then they will be doomed to abject failure.
The implications for our physical space and urban planning are huge, but of even greater importance is the fact that retailing and hospitality are big employers. Retailing employs almost 9% of the UK workforce (2.9m people); pubs, clubs and hospitality employ 10% (3.2m people). And they are sectors in which younger people and women predominate. The implications for retraining, skills and employment support services are immense.
I don’t think any of this is news, exactly. It’s a direction of travel that has been evident for as long as there has been mass e-commerce. And anyone with eyes to see can’t help but have been aware of the decline of local high streets and the damaging effects of a monoculture of consumption in city centres. Even so, there is still something devastatingly powerful in having these arguments skilfully drawn together, backed up with top-class financial and economic research.
So what is Grimsey’s solution? Well, it’s a long report, and it has 27 often quite detailed recommendations, but I’ll try and boil it down.
Essentially, he says that town and city centres must be reconfigured as leisure, cultural and community destinations — part of a broad shift to wellbeing, leisure, experiences and activity rather than shopping. They will be greener places, where local communities have much greater power over planning decisions and purpose. Mixed-use ‘mobility hubs’ should replace cars; legislative changes should be made to enable social enterprises, charities and community trusts to have a much greater high street presence. ‘In a post-COVID and post-retail world,’ he says, ‘we need to think of property as a platform to enable meaningful work, local trade, wellbeing [and] belonging.’
I’m not saying I disbelieve this. Quite the reverse. What I am sceptical about, however, is that the political will exists for such a transformation. Grimsey concedes this point. But he also makes a compelling rejoinder: it will be easier to begin planning for this transformation in a systematic and organised way now, rather than later, when great swathes of city centre property have been scooped up at knock-down prices by venture capitalists and offshore investors. Good luck negotiating with them, he says.
I will admit I find it all rather hard to envisage. City centres in which the stranglehold of corporate retailing has been broken?
I think this is what makes Grimsey and his latest report so interesting. While I can’t imagine such a seismic shift, Grimsey knows it is already happening. And he is telling us that we need to decide what to do about it as a matter of urgency.
For anyone currently seeking to influence Covid-19 recovery plans this is important reading.