Thursday, 18 January 2018

High Street UK 2020

Nearby Alsager and Congleton were two of the small towns studied by a recent project called High Street UK 2020 (HSUK2020). It's a very clunky name for an academic-led ESRC project, which started in early 2014, one of a string of projects which have aimed to identify ways to boost retail on the UK High Street. HSUK2020's final papers appear to have been published in an academic journal at the back end of 2017, but Google News searches for "High Street UK 2020" and "HSUK2020" suggest almost no publicity in the establishment media. Although I should add that's not so unusual, for many of these Research Council-funded academic projects.

Anyway, I've only just caught up with it. Sadly their attempt to tackle Alsager doesn't seem to have been very enlightening for the academics...

"In Alsager, stakeholders agreed that future research and analysis regarding footfall, the catchment area, centre users’ behaviour and shopping preferences and residents’ perceptions of the town centre can reinforce the place branding process by elucidating town centre challenges and what type(s) of action is needed."

Erm... indeed. I think that translates into plain English as "We need more consultants". Still, they did manage to discover that the locals, albeit the sort likely to go to consultation meetings, have a view that...

"Alsager is a big village rather than a small town"

Incisive stuff. So far as I can tell that's about as far as they got in Alsager. My Google searches suggest there was no special report on Alsager, no razzmatazz press-release about how specific measures had boosted the town's retail trade. But the town, along with nearby Congleton, did input into this useful PDF which asked the people at the grassroots about what the expensive consultants' reports miss out. It's the most impressive 'output' I found from the project. Amazingly, "Health" is one of the factors previously overlooked...

"We could not find anything in the published literature relating the health of the catchment [of shoppers] to High Street performance"

Wow. What an indictment of consultants/academics.

While skimming the HSUK2020's final papers, published in an academic journal for planners, I noted just a few useful nuggets. Such as confirmation that around 87% of consumers significantly change their retail habits during a big recession, and that those habits tend to stay changed for many years. For instance, some people go to coffee and tea shops more and linger longer, because that's relatively cheap, and then they 'window shop' more than they used to. Which to me suggests the question: How can you reach them in the coffee shops? Can a local shop offer a "we deliver to your table" service, co-ordinated by mobile phone GPS? Pop in the cafe for a coffee, and while you're waiting for it to be served, your phone's app pings the shop and an apprentice pops in with a smile and personally hands you the book you purchased online yesterday. Or your dry cleaning that you dropped off last week. That kind of thing. Timing would be everything, but it might be done reliably.

In terms of the HSUK2020 factors and advice it all seems to boil down to some obvious basics. I'm rewording here, summarising and translating from academic-speak and council-speak:

* understand the current identity of the town, and how it's changing.

* identify the many local barriers that your consultants may overlook.

* have a firm grasp of exactly how the town really functions, at the practical level.

* find out what the actual experience of visiting the town is, at a variety of levels.

* find out what the actual experience of selling in the town is, at a variety of levels.

* work out how to survey 'the unreachable' users of the town, including those who've stopped visiting and traders who are 'too busy to talk'.

* work out what the needs of local people are, and how to serve them better. That includes people who spend very little.

* crunch the Big Data, including data on what shopkeepers used to call 'passing trade', for trends and opportunities.

* encourage people in the town to see the ongoing global changes in retail markets and technologies as opportunities.

* expand the range of independent shops and non-retail uses.

* consult local people on any town re-branding, and especially on extensions in opening hours or evening trading.

* avoid the "fast and easy solutions" - a shiny new town logo, a simplistic appeal to big spenders, a new mailing brochure with some coupons at the back.

* help to refresh the grass-roots organisations that can encourage change in the town.

* establish a range of new partnerships, especially among those who can help break bureaucratic and other log-jams.

To which I'd add:

* get better staff and management in High St. retail. Grumpy staff are a huge factor in the current unattractiveness of the High St., and in pushing people toward online shopping. So much so that you wonder if some retailers do it deliberately, because you're more profitable to them online.

* pair humdrum sub-regional shop managers with people based in other areas, areas where the shops have already adapted to the latest retail trends.

* shrink the High St. area by moving all the outskirts shops inward, so the town centre is not strung out across two or three miles of walking (that's pock-marked by empty shops and grot). Convert the outskirts roads back to housing.

* add lots of really nice benches to sit on for free. With proper backs to them. Cafes may hate it, the police may frown and fret about drunks/druggies congregating, but the pensioners will adore you. If drunks/druggies are a real problem after noon, then work out ways to have benches put out only at certain times of day.

* have someone sprightly and eager who is dedicated to constantly going round picking up every scrap of litter and bit of broken glass, including along all footpath and cycleway approaches to the town centre.

* totally ban all chuggers and similar, don't just restrict them to certain days.

* remove 'plastic and tat' type shop-fronts, replace them with restored authentic shop-fronts if possible.

* rediscover and revive old long-lost traditions in the town. Who knew, for instance, that Congleton used to have a tradition of "ringing the chains"? In which the local monks would race around the town with strings of huge bells on them, to "announce to the town the arrival of the ‘wake’, an August holiday fair". Surely that could be imaginatively adapted for modern times, and revived?

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

On the Trail

New on the Hartshill Residents Association website, a collection of documents for the History of Hartshill, including scans old Heritage Trail leaflets.

Over the Edge

Run over by a newly elected council: plans for a £646,000 car park on allotments at Alderley Edge.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Around the houses

I wonder if those rancid London journalists did Stoke's first-time buyers a favour in 2017, during the various elections? Because perhaps their relentless negativity caused the 4% city's house price dip? By the end of 2017:

"There was one decrease in the West Midlands – Stoke on Trent (-4.0%)."

Just one in the Midlands, in a slightly rising national housing market. That seems to imply that there must be something remarkable to have caused that, when all around was different (Staffordshire Moorlands at 9.1% growth, for instance). Especially as demand in the city saw a big increase:

"Rochdale (+56%) and Stoke-on-Trent (+53%) have seen the largest increase in demand over the course of the year"

Selling-time here is also very good:

"Other cities that saw houses flying off the market were Bristol (61 days), Stoke-on-Trent (70 days),"

So demand goes up, homes sell quickly, but... the average price goes down? Curious. The Council's new tranche of "£1 homes" in the city can't have caused the dip, as not enough were released to make much a difference to the overall average. So I have to wonder if the 4% fall was due to that relentless negative publicity about the city, putting off a small proportion of nervous buy-to-let investors and downshifting incomers from outside the city? It'll be interesting to see of there are any articles in The Sentinel in the next few days, explaining the 4% fall in prices.

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Penkhull Wassail 2018

The Penkhull Wassail is happening again, on 13th January 2018 with the procession from 4pm-8pm. Starts at the village Hall in Penkhull, before visiting many of the pubs on a circular route. Should be at the Beehive Inn on the Honeywall, at about 6pm.

Hawfinch haul

I'd notice small flocks of 50-or-so small birds, flittering around in mini 'murmurs' near sunset. Without reaching for binoculars (they were too quick) I wasn't sure what they were, but according to The Telegraph it appears they're likely to be hawfinches...

"The little birds largely bypass the UK in the winter, staying in central Europe, but poor harvests on the continent have sent them further north"

Apparently they're moving as far north as Scotland, where the "little" birds miraculously grow in size, according the link-bait headline of the Oban Times...

"Giant finches flock to overwinter in Scotland".

Sunday, 31 December 2017

"No big mystery"

Local Conservative Abi Brown, summing up 2017: A Year in Politics.

During the Stoke Central by-election, "the lazy journalism of the national press did at least ensure a huge backlash of positivity about the many finer points of the city"

"In 2007 ... I remember talking to Stephen O’Brien, then MP for Eddisbury and given the role of unofficial shadow minister for Stoke-on-Trent, about a ten year plan for the Conservatives in the city. I don’t think either of us envisaged that it would be executed quite so perfectly. No big mystery to our success, beyond hard work and perseverance."

Saturday, 30 December 2017

President Trump in Stoke

Ahead of the planned February(?) visit to the UK, the new President Donald Trump Toby Jug has been released. Made in Stoke-on-Trent by a local pottery, of course.

The new President is known to have expressed a wish to visit our Brexit heartlands, so presumbly that means he'll make a visit to the heartland-of-heartlands which is Stoke-on-Trent. The obvious venue of the Stoke City F.C. stadium is probably out of the question for a public event, given the vehement leftist politics of the man who owns it. But I'm guessing that Alton Towers should be a fairly easy large venue to secure, given its rural isolation and existing security.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

"Please sir, I want some more..."

A new study has mapped "free school meals", aiming to get a sense of where child poverty is actually happening. Stoke has seen a big improvement since 2002, despite the Great Recession of 2007 onwards...

"Our map of the whole country shows that major urban centres have tended to become less disadvantaged since 2002, as have smaller towns and cities such as Bedford, Grimsby, Stoke-on-Trent and Telford."

In the map, blue is "improved". The deeper the blue colour, the better the improvement. Inner-city Stoke is the deep blue bit in the middle of the map. The rural area to the west of Newcastle-under-Lyme has also improved.

Pink indicates the four remaining hot-spots in our area, those which have declined since 2002. As you can see, locally there are pink areas in: Nantwich (currently has 79 kids claiming); between Rugeley and Cannock (currently has 68 kids claiming); on the south-west edge of Burton-on-Trent (currently 110 kids claiming), and in the Peak part of the Derbyshire Dales (current has 150 kids claiming free school meals).

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Taking the pip

Elsewhere in the West Midlands, in Warwick a set of historic 'town gardens' have been saved from the bulldozer, and a wealth of rare apple varieties discovered.