It’s The Economy…

During my annual address to full council on Tuesday I mentioned the UK’s retail crisis and our responsibility to support Bristol’s economy as it changes. I’ve expanded on this below.

Recent research from Centre for Cities  links the disturbing trend for boarded up, empty high streets to an over reliance on retail – but it says Bristol bucks the trend with a strong, diverse city centre.

Recent headlines about the troubles of big high-street names are troubling. But the report shows that the problem for many cities struggling to keep shops open is their overreliance on retail. In the weakest city centres almost half (43%) of commercial space is taken up by retail, and vacancy rates can be more than 20% – such as in Newport where a quarter of the city centre’s shops are empty. As the popularity of online shopping rises, the need for physical shops reduces. Large stores become unprofitable and face closure meaning the divide between struggling and strong city centres could widen further.

But Bristol is one of a group labelled ‘strong city centres’ which are instead dominated by office space rather than shops. In Bristol’s city centre, offices account for half of all commercial floorspace while retail takes up just a fifth. Having these skilled businesses and jobs in the heart of the city is the key to success. Workers provide essential footfall for shops, restaurants and gyms and as a result fewer are empty. This is reflected in Bristol’s lower vacancy rates for high-street services, which at 12% matches the UK city centre average.

The report advises shifting the focus of their city centres away from retail by converting empty shops into offices and homes, or removing them to make way for a new city landscape. I’ve already expressed my commitment to make it possible for families to live in the city centre in order to improve its viability and the report supports that approach. By expanding the city centre and building homes and mixed developments in Temple Quarter and the Western Harbour, we are bringing people and families back to the centre of Bristol.

Bristol has forty-six high streets across the city that offer retail, and we recognise our responsibility to support the entire city economy. However for us, where there is a comparatively vibrant city centre, the priority is to protect the commercial heart of the city, in the right way. More people and businesses want to be in the city centre, but this is putting pressure on the limited amount of land, pushing up prices and making it hard to accommodate growing firms. To sustain the city’s success, it is crucial that enough land is set aside to house a diverse collection of businesses, providing the variety of quality offices and other workspaces they need to thrive and innovate, as well as land for homes and communities.

Bristol’s position as one of the most productive UK cities depends on its population of innovative, high-skilled firms. Protecting the space they need to succeed is essential to maintaining this economic success and supporting local services. If we harness our growth and shape our own development with our eyes open, our city is big enough and strong enough to support both a vibrant city centre and out of town centres.

As the high-street becomes less retail-focused and technology impacts employment in industry and distribution, it’s vital the city supports workers transition to new roles. This includes supporting diversity in our economy, providing a wide range of jobs, meaningful work experience and pathways to employment.

The UK retail crisis is affecting many cities. Provided we behave like a major city, shaking off the village attitude that often prevails in our political environment, we can face that challenge.

Read the full Centre for Cities report here – Building Blocks: The role of commercial space in Local Industrial Strategies

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