Saturday 21 September 2019

Conor Skehan: 'No, our high streets are not dying... but they are changing in ways we will come to enjoy'

The way we shop is changing dramatically - and so will the main streets that serve us, writes Conor Skehan

‘Everybody feels nostalgia for a failed shop. It’s very like a death’
‘Everybody feels nostalgia for a failed shop. It’s very like a death’

Conor Skehan

'The king is dead. Long live the king" is an ancient phrase - originally French - declaring both the death of a regent and the appointment of a successor. The proclamation was intended to provide reassurance about continuity in a time of great uncertainty.

Recent closures or plans for contraction of very large UK high street retailers, like House of Fraser, Maplin, Mothercare, Homebase - even Marks & Spencer - are prompting concerns about the very future of town centres. The UK included measures in its Budget last week to protect retailers by reducing rates.

When, and not if this begins to happen here, you can expect to hear the following debates begin:

Businesses will claim that expensive rates and rents are driving businesses to the wall. Expect calls for the Government to control rents, reduce rates, VAT or the minimum wage. Expect to hear demands for more Government spending on the quality of urban streets and public spaces - to make them more attractive for shoppers. There will be demands for more parking and fewer restrictions on cars to make town centres more competitive.

As usual, everyone will blame the Government. Nobody will want to hear that this story is unfolding all over the world. Nobody wants to hear that Ireland is typical. Somebody must be blamed. It must be somebody's fault.

There certainly is a cause, and the ''cause'' is mostly you, dear reader. Every time you order something online, you add to the death-by-a-thousand cuts that is killing those high street giants. Online shopping is reducing retail profits. Your beloved high street is being eaten by the internet.

Ireland is reckoned to host the fifth most prolific population of internet shoppers in the world and it is growing at an estimated 8pc each year. The average revenue per user currently amounts to more than €1,000 with nearly two-thirds of Irish spending online - worth around €3bn - going to retailers abroad. The Irish main street is hurting.

Changing patterns of shopping by women - who drive 70pc-80pc of all consumer purchases - also play a big role.

Can anyone be blamed for wanting to choose from a greater variety of cheaper products from the comfort and safety of their own home, with a guaranteed and easy return policy? These changes are having different types of effects. Premises that supply in-person services - such as barbers, beauty and nail salons, cafes and restaurants - are increasing. Those with services that can be carried out online are shrinking.

These changes will have consequences. Retail will quickly cease to be a suitable vehicle for investment - unable to meet expectations of high returns. This will result in lower rent-rolls for large property owners - often pension funds. It will also result in lower income from rates for local authorities. Ireland is also very likely to share the experience of the US and the UK with an increasing loss of vitality and viability of many shopping centres.

So, our towns and villages are changing, once again - this time nudged by online shopping, but also by changing values and behaviour by consumers and customers.

It appears that shopping will become a smaller part of the glue that holds together mainstreet. When this happens, we will begin to use the building stocks of our towns differently. Shopping streets will start to accommodate more and more housing, the size of shops will shrink, the use of the main street will increasingly be for social activities. Town centre buildings will increasingly be valued for their use - and not as investment vehicles. Imagine how different our towns could be in 20 years. Imagine losing most of the larger retail shops. Imagine more and more smaller shops being used for personal services - barbers, nail bars, cafes, health and grooming.

Imagine larger towns with much fewer offices, much smaller colleges (also affected by the internet). Imagine most streets being full of surprisingly inexpensive houses, apartments and shared dwellings.

The streets will look the same - though there will be noticeably fewer vehicles and almost no parking. On closer inspection, it will emerge that very few cars are owned - most will be self-driving pay-per-use rides.

These surprising changes will happen very quickly in some places, less in others. Places that quickly accept and embrace these changes will fare best. Places that plan for change will fare best of all.

Ideally, there will be early public support to help to try out new rules for planning and regulation and new ways of financing the ownership and rental of vehicles and homes. Such co-ordinated pilot projects (imagine three new ones each year in each county) would be a smart way to direct some of the Department of Agriculture's annual expenditure of more than €300m on rural development - or our proposed separate €1bn Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.

Places with no acceptance of the inevitability of this change will have no plans to harness its energy. These places will experience every business and shop closure as another little death, another defeat.

Nobody likes change, especially in the Downtown which often was the backdrop to our most vivid memories - like the Petula Clark song. Everybody feels nostalgia for a failed shop, a closed cinema or a lost pub - with all of their memories now shuttered away. It's very like a death. People react differently to bereavement. Some never recover. Most do, though at different speeds. Perhaps we need to mourn our losses but also to accept them, so that we can move on. Our high streets are not dying. They are changing.

These changes arise from forces of technology, finance, culture and behaviour - at a global scale. They cannot be halted, but they can be accommodated, if we imagine new ways to use and enjoy our towns. If we can accept this, then we can accommodate and eventually enjoy our renewed town centres. We can prepare and plan for change, celebrating each new use as another step towards the realisation of our plan.

Mainstreet is dead. Long live Main Street.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss