In Town v Out of Town Redux

Posted by Mark on 30th Dec 2012

Being one of the leading investors in town centres, it’s not surprising that Ellandi has also been one of the most vocal opponents of unchecked out of town development.  Furthermore it is probably not to be unexpected that our towns would be targeted by developers as our investment strategy has been to invest in towns with a catchment that is poorly served by the existing retail provision; clearly with our intention being to bring improvements to the heart of the town.

Developers have two powerful arguments in favour of schemes which otherwise would fall completely outside the scope of any local or national planning policy, which are:

-Job Creation; typically x hundred jobs will be created during construction and a similar amount of “new jobs” in the shops once they are open.

-Retailer demand and convenience; retailers “hunt in packs” and if we create a “game changing” development we can bring national names to your town that will not come and cannot be accommodated within your town centre.

Once the thin veneer of respectability is scratched and the lobbyists smiles fade, these arguments are often then backed up with the threat of “if you don’t let us have out way, your town will get no investment.”

The job creation argument is easy to address. 

Firstly most construction contracts will be undertaken by national builders who put very little back into the local economy and secondly if this deters investment plans in the town centre, which are more likely to be done by local firms, then the net position will be much reduced.

In terms of creating new jobs in retailing this lie really needs putting to rest. 

Every penny spent in a new OOT shopping scheme, is spending displaced from somewhere else; it is a what is called a “zero sum game” as no new spending has been created.  In fact in every case we have been involved in, it has been fairly easy to demonstrate that due to the employment patterns in large out of town shops that these developments actually lead to a DECREASE in full time employment.

This may sound counter intuitive, but think of it like this (which is a little over simplified for effect): one large store needs one manager and lots of part time staff, if this drives out of business the local butcher, baker, candlestick maker…. (you get my point?) then more full time jobs are lost and replaced with lower quality part time jobs. This is especially damaging as often these are local businesses, with a real connection to the community.

In terms of retailer demand and convenience, these arguments have more merit.

Yes, retailers do prefer to be in a nice regular shaped box with oodles of free parking at their doorstep and like to be close to their contemporaries, but given the amount of redundant retail and other brownfield land within many town centres, most recognise that the town centre first policy is correct and backed up by a “sequential” test that means sites closer to town centres should be developed first.

However as Ellandi knows, it is impossible to get them to focus on more town centric sites if a massive OOT development is still in the wings.

So often the big sell to local folk is convenience, which if you live in or near a town that has had years of underinvestment and mismanagement can be a pretty powerful argument.  What’s there not to love about getting an M & S a couple of miles out of town when your existing town doesn’t even have a department store?

However, if a retail development, often the size of the existing town, can be developed in parallel to the existing town without destroying it, no OOT developer I have met has been able to give me an example. 

A massive retail park cannot and will not become the new heart of a community, but it will rip the heart out of existing ones.  As can be seen in towns across the country from Margate to Holyhead, Llanelli to Kirkcaldy, once this happens you get very real social decay, increased unemployment, lower house prices, etc….

So perhaps an honest proposition might be:

“Is not having to drive an extra 10 miles once a month for a big shop worth ruining your local town for?”

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