High streets are having a tough time these days, as everyone knows, thanks to out-of-town shopping, internet shopping, transport and parking difficulties and other changes in the way people live. But for some reason, the situation is worse in Wales.
Yes shop vacancy rates in Wales are falling but they are still well above the UK average of about ten per cent.
One of the reasons why this is tough for high streets is that it is tough for retailers everywhere. Within the space of a year or so, the out of town retail lobby has turned defensive as it is clear that it is the last generation’s out of town investments that are most under threat from online shopping – which has now reached ten per cent of sales.
In the USA, shopping malls are more sharply in decline, A fascinating book of photographs by Seph Lawless is filled with the abandoned white elephants, with creepers growing up their escalators.
Surprise figures in 2013 showed that out-of-town stores are declining faster than high streets. Retail Gazette in the UK has warned that ‘there is a danger that larger spaces will turn into empty buildings, with only tumbleweed passing through them’.
But why is it worse in Wales? Perhaps because, for all the rhetoric about new, more humane approaches to economics, Welsh policy has been more in thrall to the old ways than almost anywhere else.
Wales can innovate more than almost anywhere else in the UK.
It needs to look to its own people as the basis for the new resilient wealth of Wales.
The problem has been that Welsh planners seem to have embraced the idea of out-of-town shopping more enthusiastically than other regions – for reasons that are not clear – with disastrous results for the high streets. Wales has had a greater proportion of retail out of town than the whole of the UK since 2008 and the gap has widened since.
This seems to be one explanation for the plight of Welsh high streets. Out-of-town retailing sucks the economic life out of high streets, and it follows that the impact has been greater in Wales.
Why has Wales fallen for the beggar-my-neighbour style of retail development more enthusiastically? Perhaps because, very briefly, retail development seemed to offer a way out for deindustrialised regions. It looked for a moment like a get-out-of-jail free card.
Since then, they have allowed retail space in Wales to be dominated increasingly by fewer, less responsive landlords who are more able to tolerate vacancies without reducing rents.
It is a peculiar contradiction – on the one hand, Wales regeneration authorities are putting genuine resources behind a new co-ops sector. On the other hand, they remain wedded to the idea that investment – if they can attract any – will trickle down to the poorest.
The Wales economy is certainly tricky, with former coalfield communities and very rural areas, skills shortages and ill-health. More than anywhere else, they need to rethink the way that regeneration will happen. They have been wedded to big, ineffective regeneration for too long, and it’s time to try something else.
In short, Wales needs a strategy to build a thriving small enterprise sector at local level, which means providing a revolution in the access to finance and investment for SMEs.
It needs a strategy that can allow for places to make better use of the economic resources they have. And, more than almost anywhere else, they badly need a new generation of local financial institutions to make it possible.
Ironically, Wales has a devolved government. They can innovate more than almost anywhere else in the UK. They need to look to their own people as the basis for the new resilient wealth of Wales, rather than waiting hopelessly – peering out into the future – waiting for the grants or investment that never quite comes.
David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.