Marks & Spencer closed its Sauchiehall St branch
A blunt message from M&S should be at the top of every local authority’s agenda, writes TERRY MURDEN
Caught between the headlines on the rail dispute and Sue Gray’s report on Downing Street parties was a declaration that may have long lasting ramifications for our town and city centres. Marks & Spencer pulled no punches when it declared who was to blame for its decision to pull out of high streets and relocate to edge of town retail parks.
Buried among its annual figures, the cautionary outlook and the impact on the bottom line of pulling out of Russia was a statement setting out the shape of things to come: and it does not look good for our town centres.
M&S made it clear that its withdrawal from prime central retail spots was because of “failed” local authority and government policies. It did not elaborate too much, but it did make clear that poor access and lack of car parking were contributory factors.
Retailers are now focusing their strategies around online and click-and-collect, and M&S dropped enough hints that town centres, currently being designed by committees of councillors and their advisers around bicycle lanes and floral displays, will not entice enough shoppers into their town centre stores.
M&S is developing a growing pipeline of store relocations, moving from old multi-floor buildings, “often with challenged fabric and poor access and car parking, to modern, well-located sites wherever possible in the renewal format with omni-channel capability”.
It recognises that in this new digital world, “ease of shopping and fast access is critical to competitiveness”. Its brutal assessment is that “in many cases we believe the town centre locations have lost impetus as a result of failed local authority or government policy. As a result, a high proportion, but not all, of our relocations are to the edge of town.”
The company, which has already left a big gap in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, added that more will follow.
This is a clear message to council policymakers across the country that they will not revive struggling town centres with yet more bicycle lanes and tree planting. Car parking and easy access remain a key priority for big shops and retaining them will not be achieved by continuing with policies designed to do the opposite.
Local authorities must also consider how they create a level playing field between town centres and retail parks. That may mean adjustments in business rates and – in light of M&S’s comments – a review of car parking availability and charges that makes town centre shopping appealing. No amount of environmental measures will compensate if shoppers feel they are being hit in the pocket for a trip into town.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business