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How can we save our shops and high streets?

May 17, 2011

Who would have thought that the opening of a new shop would spark a riot?  Usually communities and their political representatives lament the demise of the high street and welcome new investment.  I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of the whole Tesco in Cheltenham Road debate here, while community discussion is underway.  But it shows that modern retailing arouses passions and there is a lively debate to be had over the future of our main streets.

This is not a new debate either nationwide or in Bristol.  In the late 1980s and the 1990s the main worry was the national chains building on greenfield sites and on the outskirts of towns and cities.  Bristol’s city centre faced the challenge of Cribbs Causeway regional shopping centre, given permission by central government against the wishes of local councillors.   It’s taken over a decade for the city centre to fight back, with a revamped Broadmead and new Cabot Circus centre.  Curiously, in the last few years the main supermarkets have started opening small outlets back in the high street and town centres, which is what we wanted them to do a decade ago.   Retail trends and consumer attitudes don’t move in the harmonious way that you might expect in a market economy.  Internet shopping and home deliveries by supermarkets add to the complexity.

This is an issue which has troubled me ever since I was first elected to the council in 1993.  We need a sweeping change in the laws around planning, licensing, restrictive covenants and local business taxes.  Local communities ought to be able to shape the future of their shopping streets.  We should be able to protect or attract certain types of business, for instance book shops.  We should also be able to say that there are enough supermarkets in an area, much as we can already do for bars.  Big supermarket chains also need more regulation.

I’ve been discussing these issues with ministers for some time.   In particular I’m concerned by the collapse in the number of book shops in Bristol and other towns and cities.  My seat of Bristol West is not short of bibliophiles but all of a sudden we don’t have so many places to browse and make new discoveries.  The independent shops on Whiteladies Road and Gloucester Road have gone.  Borders went bust.  Blackwells has shrunk from 4 shops in my memory to little more than a room.  Waterstone’s have gone from 3 branches to just one.  The second hand market is now dominated by charity shops.   High lease costs and business rates are part of the problem.  My Christmas visits to Montpelier Royal Mail sorting office reveal another problem – almost every house had an Amazon parcel in BS6 and BS7…

So I’m delighted that my Lib Dem colleague, Ed Davey, the Consumer Affairs Minister, has today announced a review of the High Street.  Mary Portas (“Mary Queen of Shops” to TV viewers) is to head an independent review.  I will be feeding the issues I’ve been discussing with Ed through to Mary.

But changes in the law can only do so much.  We’ve all got to want to actively support our local high streets as well and use our spending power to save local businesses.

You can feed into the review here:

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    May 17, 2011 9:28 pm

    Supporting local community shops is very important. I want and support that diversity in my local highstreet. I want the choice of local independent retailers, and live in an area with this community spirit.

    But also these days, often both adults in a family are full time workers. Shopping in your local greengrocers butchers or bakers becomes difficult as they’re always closed by the time you are back home. Saturdays are the only time you can shop, and god forbid may have other plans for the weekend. Supermarkets are always open and convenient when you need that pint or milk, or fresh vegetables and salads for your family dinner.

    The only way independent retailers can win this fight is by biting the bullet, and extending their opening hours. They already have superior quality produce, and can never compete on price, so to have a fighting chance, they need to staff up, and be more accessible at hours that are more convenient for most.

    There are a lot of people that would support not using supermarkets, if there were real viable options that fitted around their working hours.

    • DaveG permalink
      May 18, 2011 10:03 am

      > They already have superior quality produce, and can never compete on price, so to have a fighting chance, they need to staff up, and be more accessible at hours that are more convenient for most.

      Our local butchers and greengrocers (on the Gloucester Road) are usually cheaper than the supermarket as well as being better quality. The greengrocers at least is open pretty late, so we (thankfully) don’t go to the supermarkets much at all now 😀

    • Karen permalink
      September 18, 2011 1:31 pm

      It’s excellent to see that Ruby & White our new independent butcher on Whiteladies Road stays open until 8pm Mon-Sat – other independent retailers please take note!!
      I try & support the independents as much as possible but it’s impossible if they close at 5.30pm & don’t open on Sundays!
      But Bristol City Council is not helping by imposing punative parking charges – it’s also a very nasty sight to see parking wardens hovering over cars waiting to give tickets if the car owner is only a few minutes late back – another revenue raiser methinks!!

      • September 19, 2011 8:45 am

        Karen – thanks and I agree with you that independent businesses would have much to gain by being open when people who are in work have the time to shop/drink coffee, etc.

  2. May 18, 2011 9:39 am

    Very well written and thought out piece.

    Our problem here is the the coucil car parking charges have had a massive impact on a small town 😦

  3. Nigel Drew permalink
    June 26, 2011 9:52 pm

    Surprised to hear that you wanted the big supermarkets to open in town centres a decade ago. That was certainly not the view of most people. This is not “curious” , it is the consequence of unregulated market forces. Lets be clear. We must stop and reverse the massive invasion of our local shopping by Big 4 corner shops. Tesco already has over 30 in Bristol and I understand that there are 74 Big 4 shops in the city.
    Future Food Security and Supply is as much a Planning Issue as it was in the 1940’s. If the continued spread of Just in Time deliveries by the Big 4 carries on, the moment will come when our local sustainable food sources have been destroyed, and when petrol strikes or other situations cause a break in the supply chain, cities like Bristol will have empty shelves and there will be food riots which will make recent events in Stokes Croft look like a tea party. Food Sustainability demands legislation which makes local production and supply the norm. The Big 4 must be restrained. Where do you stand on this issue, Stephen?


  1. Speaking up for Bristol’s High Streets in Parliament « Stephen Williams' Blog
  2. Speaking up for Bristol’s High Streets in Parliament « Stephen Williams' Blog

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