This weekend sees the annual ‘Small Business Saturday’ event takes place across the UK. Begun in the US in 2010 as a counterpoint to Black Friday (focused on major stores) and Cyber Monday (for online shopping), it aims to encourage people to use small, locally-owned bricks and mortar businesses in their community.
The UK edition started in 2013 and falls on the first Saturday of December to take advantage of pre-Christmas spending (unfortunately clashing with the annual ‘Shutting of the Gates’ event in Derry).
Small locally-owned businesses play a vital role in increasing choice for consumers, boosting the individuality and character of towns and for the economic benefits, they bring. Every month money flows into cities via wages, benefits, visitors etc. In towns with a strong independent shop sector, that money works harder before it leaks away.
More is retained locally and recirculates to help create jobs and prosperity. In places where chain stores attract the majority of people’s spending, however, much of that wealth is quickly drained away (to corporate headquarters or tax havens). It’s like the difference between rain which falls on good quality soil and gets absorbed versus that which lands on hard, barren ground where it quickly runs off.
The New Economics Foundation conducts a survey every few years to check the health of locally-owned businesses across Britain - labelling places where global brands and chain stores have overwhelmed retail individuality as ‘Clone Towns’.
So how does Derry compare in this regard? Whilst large chain stores exist in both our city centre and outlying areas, we also have a solid presence of small, independent, locally-owned businesses. However – there has undoubtedly been a marked decline in their number, as evidenced by Derry’s reduced core shopping area.
Thirty years ago significant shopper footfall stretched from Strand Road through the walled city, down Carlisle Road and over to Spencer Road. Nowadays it has shrunk to primarily cover the Richmond Centre, Foyleside and areas immediately around them.
Many businesses thrive elsewhere, of course, but the centre of retail gravity has clearly shifted. We have also seen the demise of long-standing local businesses like Austins, Shipquay Books and Gormley Shoes. Empty shops and premises remain an issue throughout our city centre, with 13% of all spaces empty in a recent survey.
Many of our locally-owned businesses, therefore, lead a precarious existence, whilst major chain stores extract vast sums of money from here on a daily basis. All of which suggests that we may be slowly drifting towards Clone Town status.
Three key challenges face many of our small local businesses. The first is Business Rates - a fixed-cost tax based on the value of the property a business occupies, and which places a particular burden on those businesses struggling to get by. The second is the threat posed by online shopping. Almost £1 out of every £5 spent on retail in the UK is now online, with total e-sales estimated at over £53bn (2016 figures). Traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ stores find it impossible to compete with online alternatives on choice or price, which has led to businesses like bookshops, travel agencies and music retailers being culled from many high streets. And the third major challenge comes from edge-of-town shopping areas - retail warehouses on a scale and budget that locally-owned businesses can neither occupy nor compete with. Once introduced they tend to hasten the gradual demise of city centres, as has proved to be the experience since Crescent Link opened locally.
So what can be done to reverse Derry’s slow drift towards becoming just another chain-dominated Clone Town? The authorities have a central role to play in this.
A new Business Rates regime is scheduled for Northern Ireland in 2020. Rather than view this merely as an exercise in updating the existing system, the next Stormont government should instead enable Rates to be used as a tool to help make our high streets stronger and more diverse. Closer to home, it is essential for the Council and bodies like the City Centre Initiative to gain a deep understanding of the changing dynamics of retail and urban centres, and an appreciation of how to respond in a proactive and imaginative way. Some good work has been done locally in recent years, with the Townscape Heritage Initiative, in particular, restoring and revitalising buildings on Waterloo Street and elsewhere.
The need for a clear retail strategy for the city remains, however, and one should ideally operate in tandem with both public realm improvements and initiatives to increase the number of people living above shops. Task forces should be established to specifically consider how important former retail arteries like Strand Road, Carlisle Road and Spencer Road can be reborn as more unique destinations. The streets inside the Walled City are crying out for their own coherent strategy - one which could make them the epicentre of Derry’s independent small business sector. And the needless red tape which prevents good quality street food-style catering outlets from using public land in our city centre also needs to be revised. The edge-of-town retail phenomena should also be curtailed, with planning policies that reject peripheral car-dominated shopping developments in favour of a vibrant city centre.
And at a more fundamental level, our council should formally adopt a ‘Buy Local’ policy for itself. Brave decisions and creative thinking will be required to make our city centre a place where large numbers of people genuinely want to spend more time and money, but to fail to act would be to wilfully consign it to becoming just another identikit place.
As consumers, we all have the final say over whether Derry becomes another Clone Town lining the pockets of corporate shareholders, or somewhere that is more unique, interesting and prosperous than that.
Please choose wisely.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve”