Coyte Farm: Time for some unconventional thinking

“It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (J.M. Keynes)

Until now, I’ve only been half following the debate over proposals for a 100 acre retail park on Coyte Farm on the edge of St Austell, silently bemoaning the advance of the out-of-town battalions at the expense of our town centres. But a letter to the Cornish Guardian from Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe stopped me in my tracks. This part in particular:

“Coyte Farm won’t be a town centre…It won’t have a church or a market hall, or a White Hart, or a cinema, or narrow streets to clamber through…or people living there, or a Post Office, or places which evoke memories and poems…”

I must be getting old. A few years ago I would have dismissed this kind of talk as hopeless nostalgia for a way of life that, however attractive, is doomed to disappear. But my reaction on reading Bert’s letter was, ‘Dammit, he’s right’. Why should we just accept this and, more to the point, why should our elected representatives on local and county councils just accept it? Why do councils appear to be so eager to accept that the out of town option is the only answer to the problems of places like St Austell? I think I see two reasons.

Reason One: Everybody else is doing it.

It’s always safer to stay in the crowd. Out of town shopping centres are being approved all over Britain and as a politician, it would take a willingness to stick your head above the parapet to say, ‘Stop! Just because that’s what they’re doing in Kent, Yorkshire or Birmingham doesn’t mean it’s automatically right for Cornwall.’ As the quote at the top of this post says, ‘It is better for one’s reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally’. If a development like Coyte Farm goes horribly wrong and the centre of St Austell turns into a crime-ridden ghost town, the politicians can at least say ‘well it’s not my fault, it was only what everyone else was doing.’ Is that what we elect councilors to do? I seriously hope not.

Reason Two: Because it’s the easier option

The big developers and national retailers have been doing the out of town thing for years. They’re experts in navigating the planning system and know how to feed catch phrases and buzzwords to the local politicians for them to parrot and sound authoritative. What politician could resist the vacuous modern business rhetoric which includes such gems as ‘category killers’, ‘inward investment’ and ‘a differentiated retail offering, generating a high quality customer experience.’ And then there are the attention-grabbing numbers. The version here is : ‘This development will bring £100 million pounds of investment into Cornwall and create 1,300 jobs in St Austell.”  Wow! How great would it be for any politician to be able to splash those sexy headline numbers on their campaign flyers and claim the credit? Better not to look too closely at whether those numbers are actually real…

All in all, off-the-peg developments like that proposed at Coyte Farm are much easier short term options than the messy business and hard work of the other alternative, which is to think how a town centre based development could be made to work.

But thinking seriously about that alternative would require planners to get away from the simplistic arguments they have been making. The debate has degenerated to the point where the only options are said to be decaying town centres consisting of boarded up units next to pound shops on the one hand, or the abandonment of town centres in favour of out of town concrete deserts on the other.

But how much effort really has gone into looking at the potential to attract the big name retailers like M&S and Sainsbury’s into St Austell town centre? How much under-utilised retail space and brown field land is there in the centre of St Austell? Are we really sure that there isn’t the potential to accommodate big national retailers in the centre of the town? If the 25-50,000 square feet units (which is what the developers behind the Coyte Farm plan say that the big retailers need) were available in the town centre, could Sainsbury’s etc. be persuaded to consider that option?

I’m not one of those who believes that the likes of Sainsbury’s and M&S should be kept out at all costs. Quite the opposite in fact. One of their stores in a town centre can be a powerful positive force. Look at the example of Marks & Spencer in Truro. Located on Lemon Quay in the heart of the city, I suspect that nearby retailers would acknowledge that they have benefitted by having a large national brand name next door. Even Sainsbury’s in Truro is close enough to the city that it most likely acts as a draw which benefits other retailers. The question is not whether the likes of Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer are evil; it’s about where they are located and understanding that they can be used as a magnet to pull consumers into town centres or pull them out.

So until we can be convinced that all options for regenerating the town centre and persuading the big national brands to seriously consider locating their new stores there, plans for Coyte Farm should be put on hold.  Yes, it will be hard work, certainly more work than taking the easy option and concreting over 100 acres of fields on the outskirts of town. But don’t we elect politicians to make the hard decisions rather than the easy ones?

I was struck by something that a director of property investment company, Ellandi said, about their plans for St Austell town centre:

“We have put together a vision for St Austell. This is not an instant gratification thing, it’s about sustainability,”

As the owners of the White River shopping centre in St Austell, Ellandi arguably have most to lose if Coyte Farm goes ahead, so with the best will in the world, they are not impartial. But the comment, ‘This is not an instant gratification thing” really hits home. Unfortunately, for those empowered to make planning related decisions, instant gratification seems to be more attractive than the hard slog to get to another destination, even if that destination is ultimately more desirable. The planning process should involve taking a big picture, long term view. It should ask what our town centres will turn into if they are sucked dry.  It should see the irreversible destruction of another 100 acres of countryside as a last resort, not an easy option justified by the fact that it’s happening everywhere else in Britain. Those employed or elected to represent us owe us that much.

They also owe it to us to keep the developers honest. When I read that a spokesman for Mercian, the company behind the Coyte Farm plan, said “it was not in the firm’s interests to turn St Austell into a ghost town” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It clearly is in their interest to turn St Austell into a ghost town. Their plans depend on attracting the big retailers to their giant new development by taking shoppers from the town centre. I’m sure that Mercian and the other big developers are not like James Bond movie villains, sitting at their desks and stroking white cats while plotting the destruction of town centres across Britain. But they could at least have the decency to acknowledge that this is the side effect of what they are doing. Until then, their credibility will be about on a par with that of a Westminster spin-doctor.

This is also a challenge and an opportunity for the local politicians who say they represent the voice of the people of Cornwall. Making a nuisance of themselves by demanding an honest, open debate on issues like Coyte Farm and insisting that all options have been properly explored would be a concrete example of what a non-mainstream party can offer the Cornish electorate. Do that and they’d have my vote every time.

Mebyon Kernow and the art of the possible

Politics is the art of the possible (Otto Von Bismarck)

Cornish_AssemblyIn a post back in November I argued that Cornwall’s Mebyon Kernow should be encouraged by UKIP’s by-election successes. So I decided to take a look at MK’s website to see how the party’s policies are being presented ahead of important local elections later this year. What I found wasn’t pretty.     

Mebyon Kernow needs to decide what it is for. Here’s my opinion: it is, and always will be, a local party and should focus on what is possible in that role. Anything that detracts from the core goal of getting representatives elected to positions where they can influence policy and improve the lives of Cornish people should be avoided. But while success in Cornwall should be a more than sufficient goal, the MK manifesto is littered with ‘policies’ relating to national and global issues over which the party will never have any influence. It starts with MK’s ‘mission statement’.

‘Mebyon Kernow is a modern and progressive political party, campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable World.’

It was all looking good right up to those last six words. I’m sure many of us share their desire for a ‘fairer, more equitable World’ but in that quest, wouldn’t you be better off supporting organisations like Oxfam or the UNHCR? They are probably in a better position to deliver it than Mebyon Kernow. We then find an entire section of the manifesto modestly entitled ‘Global Justice’, complete with calls for global nuclear disarmament and writing off third world debt, along with ‘radical reform’ of the global financial sector’. This is about as credible as a Miss World contestant saying that what she really wants is world peace and free kittens for everybody.

Then we get down to UK-specific policies, which are only slightly less ambitious. They include the abolition of the House of Lords, implementation of Proportional Representation and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. So what are they going to do AFTER lunch…?

Ok, so this stuff might all be pretty bonkers, but what’s the harm in having it in the manifesto? Won’t the electorate just ignore it? Perhaps. But since no sane person believes that a Cornish-based party is ever going to be able to influence those issues, including them in the list of policies makes MK seem deluded. It’s a sad fact of life that all non-mainstream political parties struggle to break free of the ‘lunatic fringe’ tag; the last thing they should do is to hand evidence of their delusions to their detractors.

This global fluff also dilutes the party’s local credentials. Including these grandiose national and international aspirations implies that success in Cornwall alone is not a sufficient goal for MK. This is a very bad message to send to the electorate. It distracts from the core, concrete local issues where a regional party can have an influence. MK needs to identify these issues and make them the absolute focus of their campaigning. What might these be? A short list would include local housing policy, transport, the future of town centre shops vs. out of town supermarkets and the environment (by which I mean specific local issues such as waste management, not global warming); in short, the issues that affect people on a daily basis. The good news is that MK does address some of them, particularly housing, but a more concerted approach to policies in the other key areas is needed.

Unfortunately, as with the global aspirations discussed earlier, generalisations too often triumph over specifics. Who wouldn’t agree with the manifesto’s calls for ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Prosperity For All’? The problem is that these terms are so vague as to be almost meaningless and that limits their electoral appeal to voters who are deeply cynical about vacuous ideological slogans. Again, they need to be fleshed out with specific proposals before anyone will take them seriously.

Moreover, it also appears that few if any of the policies have actually been costed. Voters have been duped far too often by politicians who promise the earth, only to find that there is no money to pay for the policies once they get in power. The MK manifesto comes up badly short in this area as well. And repeating the tired mantra about the need for the UK’s deficit to be reduced while opposing ‘savage cuts’ and talking about the need to defend ‘front line services’ is nowhere near good enough. Those bland words could have come from the manifesto of pretty much any British political party and are equally shallow here.

The only hint as to how MK policies might be paid for comes from the part of the manifesto calling for reform of the national taxation system, replacement of the Council Tax and other measures such as abolition of the Trident nuclear programme. Not only is there a complete lack of specific numbers, but these are also national rather than local issues. Is the manifesto implying that the viability of the party’s proposed solutions for local issues is dependent on changes at the national level? If so, we have a big credibility problem.

Finally we turn to the perennially contentious issue of Cornish nationalism and where that fits in the MK electoral tool-kit. The question of Cornwall’s constitutional status within the UK may have been a powerful driver for MK in the early days, but in 2013 we have to ask how relevant it is to the Cornish electorate. Cornwall’s distinctive character, its remoteness from the centre of political power which often results in inappropriate policies being imposed from Westminster and the need for a stronger local voice should undoubtedly be at the core of MK’s appeal. But this should not mean the party becoming mired in obscure constitutional debates about the historical nature of Cornwall’s relationship to Britain. Regardless of the historical justification for the arguments, the reality is that banging on about a thousand years of English oppression is a political dead-end. The Duchy Charters of 1337 may well support the notion of Cornwall as a separate constitutional entity, but 676 years later, very few people care. That might sound harsh, but 60 years of MK history tells us that those issues have very, very limited appeal to the voters (and at the margin, may even put some voters off).

So when people ask ‘why should I vote MK and support a Cornish Assembly?’, the answer should not be ‘because a 14th century charter proves Cornwall isn’t part of England’. The man or woman on the Camborne omnibus just doesn’t care.  The answer they are looking for is, ‘because we can show that giving more power to people who understand the needs of Cornwall will make your life better’.

In short, MK needs to narrow its focus to the key local issues and explain how they will implement and pay for the clearly thought out policies that will make life in Cornwall better. It’s not as glamorous as campaigning for nuclear disarmament and the eradication of global poverty or arguing endlessly about English oppression, but it’s a damn sight more relevant to the people who they need to vote for them.

Mebyon Kernow is undoubtedly made up of committed individuals who care deeply about Cornwall. We do need a credible alternative to the big Westminster parties and MK is by far the best placed to fill that role. The party owes it to itself, and to the people of Cornwall, to take an honest look at what it is offering voters because the message of previous elections is that something is missing.

Blood on the (high) streets

Closing down

More bad news for high street retailers with the demise of the Jessops photography chain yesterday. The Truro store will now be shuttered and in due course, a ‘For Lease’ sign will appear outside. The slow death of the high street continues.

One has to feel sympathy for staff who have lost their jobs in the midst of a recession, victims of the global threat to bricks-and-mortar retailers from Internet based outlets. The current carnage in the high street raises questions about the prospects for small towns all over the UK. This is particularly relevant to somewhere like Cornwall, characterised as it is by small towns (yes, Truro is technically a city, but only because we got a last-minute cathedral at the end of the nineteenth century…)

Cornwall has no shortage of the big grocery retailers, with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and the like constantly sniffing around for potential new store sites. That doubtless explains the decline in town centre butchers and other independent food retailers. What Cornwall doesn’t have is a representative of the one area of bricks-and-mortar retailing that is still thriving in other areas of the UK, namely the mega out of town shopping centre (think Bluewater in Kent or the Trafford Centre in Manchester). For some unfathomable reason, punters still seem happy to empty their wallets to a muzac soundtrack in these soul-sucking concrete, glass and steel bunkers. For better or worse (you can probably guess where I stand on this) we don’t have one of these atrocities in Cornwall. That means that the high street is still highly relevant to Cornish consumers, as the place we go to shop for things we can’t or don’t want to buy online.

So, if we assume that vibrant high streets are an important part of the Cornish landscape, what can be done to stop them turning into a dreary procession of vacant units, interspersed with Starbucks, charity shops and betting shops?

We should ask first why the shops that are doing well on the high street are prospering. Companies like Starbucks are not fools: they are on the high street because they can still make money. A big reason is that there is no competition from online retailers. If you are overtaken by the urge for a big cup of frothy milk masquerading as coffee, you have to go into a coffee shop – ordering one from Amazon is not an option. This also applies to a certain extent to clothes shops as well. So in a nutshell, the high street is still profitable for sellers of goods you can’t buy online (like a cup of coffee or a haircut) or where there is a clear benefit to being able to handle and try the goods before purchase (like clothes).

Where does that leave the retailers that don’t fit into those categories? Well as it happens, Jessops is a good example. They were never going to be able to match companies like Amazon on price, so they had to offer something extra to compensate. In the case of a camera retailer, that could be expert advice or the opportunity to try out a camera or lens – something the customer wouldn’t get from an online purchase. I suspect that one of the reasons for the demise of Jessops was that they didn’t have a wide range of stock and (in my experience at least) the staff weren’t particularly knowledgeable or keen on letting customers handle the goods before purchase. So the customer was losing nothing by just trawling the Web for the cheapest price rather than buying on the high street.

Responding to this kind of challenge is down to the individual companies themselves. If they don’t move quickly there will be more casualties (HMV, Currys, I’m looking at you). But there are some common cost factors, specifically rent and rates, which affect all high street retailers’ viability, and one factor that affects their customers, car parking charges. Most landlords are private companies, so rents are a private sector question, while local government sets rates and car parking charges.

Rents account for the majority of a retailer’s fixed costs. The landlords operate in a free market and have to make a decent return on their assets by charging a fair rent. But as yet more vacant shop units appear in town centres, landlords must surely see that they are in danger of sacrificing their long term prospects by short-sightedly continuing to demand the high rents which helped to push previous tenants out of business in the first place. The more boarded-up shops that appear in a street, the more the value of the other units in the same area is eroded. So why do they do it? On the face of it, it seems crazy for a landlord to prefer to keep a unit empty rather than cut the rent and have a tenant in there. There is a logic to it however. If you’re a landlord who owns multiple properties, dropping the rent on a vacant unit means you run the risk of having existing tenants demand a similar reduction, dragging down returns across your whole rental portfolio. At some point, though, one has to hope that landlords will take a longer-term view; if that means cutting rents to ensure the survival of their customer base and therefore the value of their own assets, that’s what will have to happen.

What about rates and car parking charges? The first is another significant cost to the retailer and the second is a potential barrier to customers coming into town centres to shop. What they both have in common is that they are under the control of the local government rather than the private sector. So in the unlikely event of an outbreak of joined-up thinking in local government, both could be tackled quickly and in a coordinated fashion. If County Hall really believes that Cornwall needs viable, vibrant town centres, why not do something concrete about it rather than sit around hand wringing. How about a cut in business rates for local high street businesses and a trial period in which town-centre car parking charges are abolished? See whether, after 6 or 12 months there has been a positive impact on high street trade and then reassess.

Sure, the middle of a recession is a bad time to suggest policies that would further reduce council revenues. It would, however be a brave experiment which might just work. I’m generally a free-market kind of guy, but there are some areas that require government intervention and this is one of them. It’s quite possible that the short-term revenue sacrifice from cutting rates and car parking charges could be offset by the longer-term social (and financial) benefits of ensuring the survival of the high street. That, of course, would require vision and boldness from our local politicians. I’m not holding my breath….

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