Media interest in retail, markets, towns, high streets and general place management has been frequent over the last few months. Many of the stories have been negative and about closing retailers and an uncertain future, but those working in place management know that other things are happening. The Institute has been keen to share some of these other things. We are in a strong position to help change the high street narrative. We have nearly 30 years of research to draw from as well as the collective experience of our membership. We are based at Manchester Metropolitan University and both our Co-Chairs, Cathy Parker and Simon Quin, are international authorities in place management. Being in Manchester, near Salford’s Media City is also an advantage!

In October, a Radio 5 Live drive-time phone-in on markets had Professor Cathy Parker in the studio, sharing the positive findings from the recent joint NABMA and NMTF research into the markets industry and talked about the success of The Teenage Market.

The lead-up to the budget was an obvious focus for media interest, given the many ‘leaked’ announcements about rate relief and other high street support. It was interesting to see a noticeable change in attitude from the mainstream media. Fed up with reporting doom and gloom on the high street, journalists were eager to understand and report how people and local organisations are renewing their town and city centres, with support or leadership from BIDs and other place management organisations.

Several stories about changes happening in Altrincham also made the media with SKY news and the BBC running stories about Altrincham’s Food Hall, and interviewing Cathy Parker, whilst Altrincham’s short-listing for the Great British High Street Awards was featured on BBC North West and Granada Reports showing Simon Quin and fellow judges Ojay MacDonald of ATCM and Graham Wilson of NABMA.

Here is a round-up of the Institute in the media over the last month, and the research and other messages we have been sharing.

The Sunday Times Magazine – 7th October

On the 7th October The Sunday Times Magazine ran a six-page story ‘Towns: the fight for the soul of Britain”. As the feature said “Cities tend to vote Labour, rural areas vote Conservative but towns are split down the middle – and they are home to 34m people.”  Leaf Arburthnot put together a well-researched piece explaining how and why politicians must start focussing on Britain’s neglected towns, with a spotlight on Paisley, Richmond, Halifax, Macclesfield and Sheerness. Professor Cathy Parker was interviewed “People feel very disillusioned to see their high street going downhill and their towns not reflecting the buoyancy felt elsewhere in the country”, she said. “Everyone wants to be proud of where they live. No-one wants to live in a failing town, which is when the idea of taking back control becomes quite attractive. But when people try and change their town for the better, they often come up against an enormous amount of local bureaucracy that stops things getting done”. Cathy went on to discuss the problems with town-centre decision making, including planning authorities having to cover large and diverse areas, the dominance of unsuitable retail-led regeneration schemes. Drawing on the ‘Bringing Big Data to Small Users’ project, Cathy explained how understanding footfall patterns was a good way to start to appreciate what a town’s function was – and that every town needs a bespoke approach to unlocking its potential.

BBC Breakfast - 17th October

BBC Breakfast was late to the ‘Altrincham Market: Poster Child for Town Regeneration’ story, but on the 17th October BBC Breakfast ran a feature on Altrincham market’s success. Professor Cathy Parker was invited to comment and explained some of the features that made it so successful – namely its extended opening hours, how it has brought diversity to the town’s offer, it great appearance and the experience for customers. She also made the point that although the market was a very visible anchor for the regeneration of Altrincham, a lot of other work had been done in the background, over many years. Altrincham was a great example of people and organisations working in partnership – the local authority, the community, the landlords and the BID have worked together to bring about the incredible transformation of the town.

BBC Sunday Politics - North West 28th October

Cathy joined Mary Robinson, Conservative MP for Cheadle and Lisa Nandy Labour MP for Wigan for the BBC’s North West Sunday Politics and a discussion about retail and the high street.

With the news that Kendals (Manchester’s House of Fraser) was going to be closed the interview started with Cathy’s views on what had gone wrong. Cathy explained it was, primarily, a problem of positioning. In its prime Kendal’s was the luxury department store in the city, but Harvey Nichols and Selfridges have taken that spot. With the rent and rates associated with such a big store it was just not turning over enough to survive.

The discussion then moved into the type of interventions that can bring about positive benefits for the high street. Was it any longer enough for councils to just try and attract big stores? Cathy thought that large shopping schemes were not the way forward for towns to kick-start their economy. She understood why local authorities were sometimes forced to purchase out-of-date shopping centres in their towns and cities, because empty, run-down centres were a blight on the high street. Bringing these into re-use was a good idea – but financing major new developments was likely to be doomed.

When asked who was to blame for the problems on the high street Cathy had a good opportunity to explain how complicated the issue was. The technological, social and economic environment has changed over the last 30 years and IPM research has identified 201 factors which determine the success and failure of the high street. The development of out of town retail has had a massive impact and continues to have a big impact. There have been some poor decisions made at a local level, a plethora of ‘copycat’ regeneration schemes following identical blueprints, whereas Altrincham, for example, is successful for doing something totally different – anchoring its regeneration around a food market.

Of course, so near the budget, there was inevitably a discussion about business rates and Cathy used the opportunity to convey the clear message that we had heard from IPM/TBF and ATCM members back in June, at our joint consultation event : Taxation needs an overhaul to level the playing field for on and off-line retail