This is my column in the Herald Express 3rd May 2012...enjoy!
RECENTLY a wise man, or at least I thought him wise at the time, asked me how business was in these troubled times. Well given that I am tangled up in retail I would have thought the answer self evident given the huge number of empty shops populating town centres. I have shops in Plymouth, Exeter and Paignton and so it did start me thinking about the nature of our local towns and of Paignton in particular. There has without any doubt been a seismic shift in the nature of shopping patterns and that adjustment has had a catastrophic impact on so many. Unless you have been living like a Clanger in some deep silo you cannot have failed to notice the increasing number of empty retail units in town centres and indeed the tattered remains of traditional ribbon shopping parades. Each empty shop has a sullen grey sadness about it because it once held the dreams and aspirations of the hard working occupant. Daily we read and hear so many comments about the demise of the traditional town centre, the relentless onslaught of out-of-town shopping, the internet and the rapid development of huge urban shopping centres like Drake Circus and Princesshay (each with empty retail units vacated by recent brand casualties). Sadly, much of what is reported is caught up in a mixture of misty myth, half-truth and wishful thinking. What cannot be challenged is the fact that years and years of hard work by so many has been flushed down the economic toilet as this paradigm change settles down. Meanwhile, giant supermarkets continue to open around the outskirts of Torbay like some demonic attempt to replicate the Great Wall of China, with end-to-end enormous food halls packed full of so many goodies in regulation sizes. I guess that once the smaller shops have gone the retail giants will then slug it out in what will doubtless be recorded by history as the Supermarket Wars. Who knows? Beyond the 'wall' are the increasing car boot sales with queues that bring local weekend traffic to a standstill. What an exciting rummage a car boot can be with so many of the little bits and bobs that increasingly find themselves launched into the brave new recycling cyber world that is eBay. But here is another interesting change. Inside the 'wall' have you noticed the growth of charity shops, charity offices, gambling shops, fast food outlets and shops selling second-hand stuff in Torbay? Is this the nature of the new town centre community? Anyway, let's get back to where we started with my wise man conversation. His second question was whether Torbay missed a trick in attempting to attract people back to the town centres? As you know, much effort has been put into the establishment of Business Improvement Districts, which is of course another tax on local business with a positive spin. This strategy is about improving the ambience of the business districts. It is good to do but of course the best way of helping struggling local business would be a reduction in the rent and the business rates, but that is another story. What actually happened next in Torbay was sadly a bit of an own goal. Cash-strapped Torbay Council decided to populate the town centres and popular tourist areas with an army of blue traffic meters policed by community enforcement officers. Parking charges became a source of short term revenue and nothing to do with easing traffic flow. I'm not going to waste time bleating on about the damage that has caused since others are still fighting that short term and hugely damaging simplistic policy. So there you have it, an opportunity to attract folk into the area has been squandered by the short term need to generate income in the face of draconian economic cuts handed down by this unelected government. But life is good and so we celebrate the moment and greet each day with a smile.