BLOG: Estates taking centre stage for M&S (finally)

By Michael Pemberton, CEO, BEC

A 62% profit drop for one of our biggest retail names is enough to pique anyone’s attention. But what caught my ear listening to M&S CEO Steve Rowe on the BBC sofa this morning was the clear and constant reference to estate footprint and the property portfolio’s role in reviving this British institution.

It reminded me of the very first article I wrote for In Cumbria when BEC started sponsoring the property supplement last year. In it, I shared my thoughts on the changing face of our high streets and having re-read it this morning – it still rings true today.

Here’s a refresh:

Desks on the high street: increasing town centre footfall through office development

By Michael Pemberton, CEO, BEC – March 2017 for In Cumbria magazine

The latest figures from our high streets point to 15 shop closures in the UK. Not a month, or even a week, but 15 shops lost from our high streets every single day.

For organisations striving to bring about regeneration and economic resilience, the worry about high street closures is not new.

We shop online now. In the UK we make about 15% of all purchases online. In America this has tipped past the 50% mark for the first time at the end of last year. It’s not just shopping either, banks are seeing such an increase in online service use that branch closures are being announced across major chains.

In big cities the impact is noteworthy but not a disaster. It’s challenging, but fundamentally in a city, population sizes are buoyant enough to attract service led developments – such as gyms, bars and restaurants – that can economically thrive on every street and help retain a sense of place and community.

In places like Cumbria, however, where we have a patchwork of unique, distinctive, yet often geographically isolated, towns and a smaller population – we can’t fill every closed shop with a successful bar and expect existing footfall to make it successful. Instead, we need to re-engineer the makeup of our high streets.

Balancing out the high street: mixed developments

With in-person transactions dropping more every year, we’ve known for a long time that the makeup of our high streets need to change, and we have the opportunity to secure a new future for town centres with positive developments.

In 2014, Emma Duncan, the then-deputy editor of The Economist published a bold piece stating “The Death of the High Street – HURRAH” and called for a greater conversion rate of empty shops to residential units in towns that were seeing housing crunches. The idea being, that in turn the housing brings footfall to boost the remaining shops.

It’s not just housing that brings crowds but commercial developments too. Putting more office desks in easy reach of our high streets brings the ‘lunchtime pound’ to retailers of all sizes while breathing new life back into vacant premises.

It’s for this reason that BEC has decided to site its new HQ on Cleator Moor High Street. In a matter of days, our HQ team will be moving out of Westlakes Science & Technology Park and into our new community. We’ve been kindly welcomed by the Town Council, who are keen to see more businesses in the town, and are looking forward to the move.

The power of patience and partnership: sharing a common goal

Changing the face of our town centres from primarily retail units to economically viable mixed developments cannot be done in isolation. It’s more than bricks and mortar from developers. More than local authority planning. More than town council initiatives, and more than resident forums alone.

Delivering sustainable communities in a commercial environment demands partnerships of commitment, trust and transparency. Partners must have common purpose, a shared understanding of the pitfalls and opportunities, appropriate governance and a lot of patience. Regeneration developments must stand the test of time and make long-term contributions to their surroundings.

Ultimately that’s what regeneration is all about – adapting to changing market forces and making tomorrow’s world better.

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