Friday, 27 November 2015

How To Energise Our Town Centres

It’s Black Friday, that crazy American import involving shoppers going berserk for cut price white goods. This year, so far, there appears little sign of such frenzy. It can be hard to resist the advances of big retail. Giant, omnipresent firms such as Tesco are woven into our lives. Have you ever tried avoiding buying from these guys? It’s a nightmare!

The stranglehold supermarkets have on our spending is being tightened thanks to out-of-date local authorities and councillors who still think the promise of jobs trumps everything else. They never seem to consider that when a chain store opens it inevitably causes smaller rivals to shut up shop. One study has shown that every time a large supermarket opens, on average 276 local jobs are lost. So the key question is does the community get more jobs, better jobs, and do the profits stay in the area?
Squeezing local suppliers, pay poverty wages and sucking profits out of local economies. Every little helps!

Just recently Tesco, which has a mammoth store on the edge of Musselburgh town centre, got permission from the local councillors for HGV deliveries at night. Residents living nearby already know how disruptive deliveries can be. The ultimate aim of Tesco’s request is to make more money, yet in approving the extension one local councillor said the benefits the store brought to the community, including employment, should be considered.

I’d like to see evidence of those apparent benefits.

For a start, Tesco don’t pay the Living Wage. They’ve even been whining about paying George Osborne’s not-quite Living Wage. There’s a petition to get them to get their finger out here.

It’s also well known that supermarkets suck money out of local economies. A study by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland found that large supermarket developments led to fewer town centre retailers, an increase in vacant units and a fall in business for existing retailers.

Here’s a good piece by Rob Hopkins of the Transition movement contrasting our supermarket culture with the fresh, local retail culture other countries enjoy.

East Lothian Council has an economic strategy and it’s worth taking a look because “energising” our town centres appears to be a priority.

Sadly, the list of “actions” is nothing more than warm words.

Is anyone aware of any “distinctive branding” for Musselburgh, or any of East Lothian’s towns? Has the council “explored” opportunities for business space in town centres? How does supporting farmers’ markets help Musselburgh given we don’t have a farmers’ market? And how do out of town developments help town centres? Does the council really believe that having the multinational chain store bonanza that is Fort Kinnaird on our doorstep helps Musselburgh High St in any way?

As for support for parking, we know only too well that car is king. The redevelopment of the High Street was an opportunity to prioritise space for walking and cycling but instead we got more car parking, and hey – what do you know – the traffic congestion and air pollution haven’t got any better.

What’s more I had asked the council to install bollards in the area to prevent parking on pavements and dodgy three-point turns but no bollards were installed.

One item on that list is worth praising, though. Supporting ‘shop local’ schemes. The scheme (I’m only aware of one) encourages people to shop in local stores and if you spend enough you go into a draw to win a whopping cheque. It sounds good but upon closer inspection I see the Honest Toun is something of a poor relation.

Of the 120 or so businesses listed as taking part across East Lothian only 5 are in Musselburgh. And one of them had my custom the other day but didn’t know anything about the Shop Local scheme. I think the council’s pledge to “energise” our town centres needs an energy boost of its own!

Saturday 5 December is Small Business Saturday and I would encourage you to seek out local retailers if you’re hunting for Christmas gifts. Last year I did just that in North Berwick and it was genuinely relaxing. I dread to think what it would have been like if I’d gone in the opposite direction and headed into Edinburgh city centre or even Fort Kinnaird.

I mentioned the opportunity the council had to make Musselburgh better for walking and cycling. After a year of waiting we now have some bike racks in the High Street but sadly we don’t have the local safe cycling road space to go with them.

Here’s a great article making clear the benefits of creating such space. Local stores get a boost and cyclists spend more than motorists.

As well as being Black Friday today is the day the council closes its consultation on bringing back traffic wardens. I have chipped in my thoughts. One point I’ve made to the council is that they seem to be planning to use the income from parking fines to improve parking. I’d rather that money went into energising our town centres with fresh air, space for walking and cycling, and new businesses. Let’s at least try to give the Tescos of this world a run for their money.


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