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Why traditional high street has disappeared for good

By John Simpson

Published 06/09/2016

Anderson McAuley is one of many names to have disappeared from our high streets
Anderson McAuley is one of many names to have disappeared from our high streets

The urban 'high street' is changing. Some of the less disciplined comments on staging a revival reveal a poor appreciation of the social and economic changes affecting urban regeneration and consumers' market behaviour.

But there is a naivety in hoping for a restoration of the 'high street' on the scale or in the shape of recent decades.

For Northern Ireland consumers, many household names have gone or will go.

Woolworths, Anderson McAuley, Robinson Cleaver, the large Belfast Co-op, Austin Reed and (moving north west) Austin's have left the shopping 'frontage' with vacant space.

The demise of BHS has written another worrying chapter in the evolution of the traditional urban 'high street'. The BHS obituary has had an understandable focus on the implications for former employees on the future management of their pension funds.

The actuarial deficit in the pension funds of BHS is serious and has become a test case for the operations of the UK Pension Protection Fund. The ability of that fund to require the former owners to contribute extra money to the pension pot is under review.

The pension fund deficit problem may even lead to changes in legislation to tighten up the obligations on company directors in making contributions to pension funds.

Without diminishing the serious pension fund problems for former employees, the BHS demise also emphasises that there are problems for all planning authorities in influencing the commercial shape and fortunes of retail businesses.

BHS has gone. It was not trading very successfully. No other business group made a bid to buy-up the business as a going concern. The closure was not caused by the pension fund problem. The pension fund problem was a consequence of closure, not the causation.

A national UK five-year survey from the Local Data Company says that most closures are of public houses and inns, women's clothes shops, and banks and financial institutions.

Top of the league table for new openings were convenience stores, charity shops, tobacconists and beauty salons.

The changes are the combined outcome of different trends.

First, locally owned, stand-alone large departmental stores are facing tighter trading margins.

Second, ease of customer access enjoys a premium for use of the private car that has increased.

Third, internet shopping and delivery is displacing a major part of day-to-day shopping.

Many urban centres now have potentially much more retail space than is likely to command viable rental demand.

In addition, much of that retail space is in areas that need urban regeneration activity and others which are inconvenient to generate footfall from car users.

In Northern Ireland the implications and lessons to be learnt from the changing market for retail activity may not yet have been fully appreciated.

Understandably, but misleadingly, social and political comment tends to look for the renewal of the existing urban and town centre structures.

This then also attracts the search for quick policy changes, such as easing the costs of property through different bases for levying business rates.

Short term changes in the rating system will not answer the longer term questions or cope with the fundamental changes in the market place.

As the analysis for The Times emphasises, while the number of departmental stores based in larger urban centres has not changed appreciably, the location of departmental stores has been subject to a high level of churn.

Nearly 30% of departmental stores have had a move from a high street location to a retail park.

The search for policies to regenerate urban centres will fail if planners continue to resist the decentralisation of urban retail units and try to maintain footfall where customers are less inclined to go.

As an example, refreshed development plans for Belfast and Lisburn are awaited.

Has Northern Ireland heard the message from the John Lewis Group?

Company Report

LCC

IN terms of annual turnover, LCC — formerly Lissan Coal Co — is a large and diverse family-controlled business. The Cookstown-based firm is a distributor of fuel oil and gas as well as related fuel products and equipment, and the wholesaling and retailing of coal. 

The group is a major importer and distributor of coal and oil in Ireland and has recently enjoyed an expansion by establishing a branch in Belgium.

The group has also been increasing its share of the non-domestic electricity and gas markets in Northern Ireland.

LCC owned half of the voting share capital of LSS Ltd, a Northern Ireland-registered joint venture with Statoil Hydro ASA.

That 50% shareholding was bought

during the last financial year and this

former joint venture is now consolidated in the overall results. Group turnover in 2015 was over £544m, recovering from a lower figure in 2014, but still less than the record amount of £579m in 2013.

Operating and pre-tax profits previously peaked in 2011 at nearly £14m. Since then, operating profit levels fell in 2012 and

2013, increased sharply in 2014, and have now reached just under £15m.

Average employment has quadrupled from 43 people in 2005 to 176 in 2015.

Most of post-tax profits are retained each year in the business. 

Dividend payments of £400,000 were allocated in 2014 and 2015. The balance sheet value of shareholders’ funds reached £86m in September 2015, nearly £16m higher than a year ago.

Belfast Telegraph

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