GLA Regeneration Committee Town Centre Survey Response

The GLA Regeneration Committee are looking into the health of town centres and we have submitted our views in the context of our experience here in High Barnet.

From BARNET RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION (BRA)

SUBMISSION TO THE LONDON ASSEMBLY REGENERATION COMMITTEE

GOOD GROWTH FOR TOWN CENTRES ACROSS LONDON

BRA has monitored the health of High Barnet town centre over many years. We have, for example, conducted a sizable survey of residents seeking their perceptions of the town centre, we have sought to influence landlords and shopkeepers re the presentation of their properties, we have scrutinised and sought to influence planning applications affecting the High St.

To put matters in context: High Barnet was a largely self-sufficient Hertfordshire market town dominated by a working class population who largely worked locally.  Increasingly the character of the town has become that of an outer suburb slowly gentrifying as professionals priced out of more central areas have chosen to live here.  So we have increasingly become a commuter town for white collar workers travelling to central London, plus growing numbers of professional home workers.  This has changed the nature of what people expect of the town centre and it is fair to say that the offerings have lagged behind the expectations of the more affluent incomers. 

As well as the impact of the changing nature of the town the more general well documented issues of the attraction of large shopping malls and internet shopping have had a major impact, in particular clothing and footwear shops have been decimated.  So the changes have been considerable.

We have arranged our comments in the order of the questions raised in the consultation document.

What is the current health of High Barnet town centre?

We regard the current situation as improving but some way to go to full health

The major plus factors are:

  • The owners of the shopping mall that runs off the High St (The Spires) are in the process of a major uplift involving substantial capital injection.  Their prime aim is to create larger – much larger – comparison outlets and more restaurants including developing an evening economyThis is an example of private risk capital judging what future High St demand might be.  Time will only tell if they have got it right.
  • Increasing numbers of catering outlets, coffee shops and better quality cafes dominating the daytime trade.  More or better restaurants have been slow to appear but our expectation is that this should be a growth area.
  • Growth in personal services – hairdressers, nail bars, health spas.  This is probably a reflection of the increasing affluence in the area
  • Some growth in specialist destination shops – dog grooming parlour, games shop, bike shop, quality tailor, old fashioned sweet shop, Chinese medicine, and an exotic greengrocer, adding to others such as a long established music shop and an artists’ shop.  However not all specialist shops work, and there have been numbers of failures.  It is a high risk area.
  • Modest contraction of the retail offering as shops have converted to offices or other uses.  We do consider that some reduction in more peripheral outlets in the secondary retail area is desirable.
  • Landlords have been moving very quickly to realise the potential of unused rooms above shops by converting them to flats.  This has the advantage of more people living around the centre with many being a captive audience who do not have cars.  We cannot judge the impact on trade but feel sure it must be a positive development.  This also means that landlords are not solely dependent on the shops for income and which may lead to more flexibility in the approach to rents, though we have no evidence whether this might be happening.

Negative factors are:

  • Some ill-judged arrivals, many of whom we have correctly predicted would not last long.  Failures have notably included middle or bottom end cafes/restaurants and convenience stores.    The failures in recent years, and there have been many, have reflected poor quality, over-supply in a particular sector, or a lack of appreciation of changes in demand for the types of outlet the public want.  Amazingly, several clothing shops opened after the 2009 recession and unsurprisingly have now disappeared.  Prospective occupiers often seem poorly advised on the overall market situation or in some cases are in the right sector but are not up to the standard that  potential customers expect.
  • Too many shops poorly presented in terms of signage, fit-out, shabby frontages and window dressing.  The overall appearance of the High St is far short of being as good as it should be which puts off potential footfall.
  • A legacy of far too many charity shops which arrived in times of recession and because of their favourable trading basis they never disappear.  They have been willing to meet rental expectations which normal traders cannot afford, thus maintaining high rental levels in the High St when they ought to be falling.
  • A catastrophic decline in the town Market to a point where closure is a real possibility. This may reflect changing shopping habits. But wass once a focal point of the town and its decline has been reflected in fewer people travelling into town.
  • Remote landlords with short-term horizons who show little willingness to engage for the overall betterment of the town or put conditions on their tenants for what they can do with a property.  For example many tenants are never told that their premises are in a conservation area (see next).
  • A lack of resources has meant that the council does not have a grip on shop front alterations and signage.  As a general rule we find that where planning applications are submitted most proposals have been well thought out and we rarely have reason to object.  But for about 50% of changes there are no planning applications and invariably it is these where alterations and signage turn out to be poor.
  • Parking is a problem insofar as we cannot offer the large free parking areas offered by retail parks and out of town supermarkets.  There are many such outlets an easy drive away and we are aware that many residents who live close to the town centre prefer to drive out to shop.  We discuss this issue further in the final section below.

Is the town centre faring better or worse than ten years ago?

The answer is better. Though to be precise we would draw comparison with the ferocious recession following the financial crisis.  Around 2010 we had an 11% vacancy rate.  It is now down to about 6% - an improvement but still too high.  We are also conscious that many traders are operating at the margins and another recession could again result in the vacancy rate going back to double figures.

We have commented that changing patterns in retailing has seen the demise of many small clothing shops and changing taste has changed the restaurant/café mix.  Pubs have declined.  Two of four Indian restaurants have closed as have two pizza outlets and a burger restaurant.  These were all independents.  Only one new chain restaurant has arrived but we are expecting more.  Chain coffee shops have increased in number.  The key for all sectors is adaptability to change the type of outlets as demand changes.

Mayoral regeneration schemes

In 2010 the town received a grant from the Outer London fund and with additional funds which the council found over £500K was spent on the town centre.  The programme was managed as a collaboration between the council and resident groups and has generally been seen as a success, though results were mixed:

  • The major expenditure was a revamp of a central green area to make it more open with planting and seating. As an attractive area well used by the community it has been a success.
  • Decluttering of the High St by removing railings and other unnecessary objects certainly improved the appearance, though whether this had any impact on footfall is difficult to judge.
  • Six notably unattractive shop fronts were revamped, intended as exemplars for others to follow. One or two outlets did follow suit, though most remained impervious.
  • Training was provided to help shops improve their presentation.  Judged a failure with few participating.  Many independent retailers know their business but lack awareness of marketing and presentation
  • Funds were provided for special events around the High St – successful in themselves but no indication of a lasting impact on footfall.

What needs to be done to make it a better place to shop?

We consider that by far the most important consideration is the ability of the retail sector to anticipate and quickly respond to changing demands from consumers, with an awareness of changing demographics and affluence.  This is not easy but those who get it right will prosper.  This is not an area where Govt and Councils can easily get involved.

But there are areas where the public sector can exert influence:

  • Traffic control:  The mayor’s draft transport strategy majors on changing the balance between traffic and pedestrians which we wholly endorse.  We are aware that in High Barnet some 65% of town centre visitors walk or arrive by bus, whilst most of those who drive in park on the periphery and then walk in to the centre.  Yet our High Street is geared to supporting the progression of heavy through traffic which makes the environment unpleasant.  This needs addressing so indeed the town centre becomes primarily about pedestrians and not cars.  This thinking is not yet widely accepted and needs pushing hard.
  • Parking: Links to the above.  There has been a strong movement in our Borough for free short-term parking in High Streets. We do not support this.  Making the High Street an attractive parking destination invites congestion when the aim should be to reduce traffic.  That said, we are conscious that up to a few years ago our Council had standard charges and waiting times in all locations, which resulted in distortions such as commuters occupying prime central parking areas.  We initiated a review in High Barnet and the council agreed to designate spaces that best met the competing needs of visitors and shoppers, with variable charges and length of stay, including some limited free parking.  As a result the council parking is now consistently full.  However the major supply of parking spaces in town is a privately run car park which charges more than the council and leaves the town out of kilter with surrounding centres.  Only 40% of spaces are regularly occupied, a situation which demonstrates that there is consumer resistance to parking charges they consider excessive. The operator is disconnected from the well-being of the town centre and this situation needs to change.
  • The environment can be changed enormously through pavement widening, trees, planting and hanging baskets. 
  • The prevalence of poor presentation of shops needs to be overcome.  As a society we are becoming increasingly affluent and with that people have higher expectations.   Much can be done to improve shop presentation with stronger planning controls and education.  Poor signage and shop front design is a blight in many localities except where areas are controlled by landlords who actively engage in this area (e.g most of central London).  Major retail chains who seek to impose a standard corporate style are often major offenders – does anyone admire Boots, WH Smith or Nationwide frontages for example?  Where landlords exercise influence, or councils have a grip on conservation areas, outlets such as these can and do produce much better frontages.  We would like to see landlords and retailers much better educated in understanding how they can do much better with presentation but from our experience this is an uphill struggle.
  • Planning controls and perhaps the rating system should also be reviewed to prevent a prevalence of certain types of outlet, which should include socially undesirable outlets and excessive numbers of charity shops for example.  Some councils do have a policy of ensuring a proportion of shops in the prime retail remain as A1, but controls could go much further.

What do you think a modern town centre should offer its residents, workers and shoppers?

We should not be unduly despondent about what has been lost to the internet and large shopping centres.  High Streets may have to contract a little, but there are many types of outlet which can thrive as we have indicated above, but awareness of change in demand, adaptability and good presentation are essential.

The public environment does need to have appeal so that pedestrians are left with the feeling that the town centre is for them and not just for the passage of traffic or those wishing to park.

Parking should still be an important consideration in localities that are more suburban in character and access necessitates many people using cars, but should be carefully organised to best meet the needs of visitors and commuters without prejudicing the primacy of pedestrians.

Gordon Massey

Chairman

Barnet Residents Association

September 2017