Paul Williams: ‘Localism on steroids’ could drive prosperity



It is 21 years since Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s influential and illuminating book described the next emerging wave of economic prosperity as an experience economy.

This led to the intentional staging of engaging experiences and the creation of enduring memories becoming a key battleground for retailers throughout the country.

As the concept of an experience economy exploded, the future for high streets was considered to lie around authentic experiences of tourism, culture, heritage and food.

However, with fair weather corporate behemoths fixated on identical store formats and a formulaic approach to retailing, many town centres across the UK started to lose their identity, character and appeal.

Subsequently, along came a whole raft of reviews into the health of the high street.

The New Economics Foundation’s ‘Clone Town Britain’ report proposed a manifesto for the return of diversity and distinctiveness to turn back the tide of homogenisation and cultural uniformity.

This was followed by Mary Portas’ vision for breathing economic and community life back into town centres by re-imagining them as ‘destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.’

Despite some success in putting the high street onto the national agenda, far too many places, including Stoke-on-Trent’s own city and town centres, remained inextricably wedded to a 20th century mindset, with only limited progress in delivering the changes necessary to repurpose them as unique hubs at the heart of the community.

Responding to significant cultural and landscape changes, as well as continuing shifts in consumer behaviour, a task force of experts, assembled by Bill Grimsey, the former chief executive of Iceland and Wickes, argued that it was ‘futile to cling on to a sentimental vision of the past’ in the quest for an ‘alternative future’ for the high street.

After setting out why ‘it’s time to reshape our town centres’, Grimsey reconvened his task force for a third time to urge us to ‘build back better’.

Seven years, three reports, and a total of 83 interdependent recommendations later, he suggests that Covid-19 could finally be the disruptive shock shopping destinations need.

Few would argue with the assertion that coronavirus has ‘accelerated the demise’ of town centres, particularly those where less than healthy pre-pandemic retail businesses remained too focused on routine shopping.

Since the Stoke-on-Trent Business Improvement District (BID) was formed, it has committed to working with levy payers, the city council and community partners to create a welcoming and engaging city centre destination for all.

The BID acknowledges that to reinvigorate the city centre we need to adopt what the chair of the Institute of Place Management calls a ‘Mars bar approach’ – working together to create an environment that isn’t just about buying stuff, but a destination where residents and visitors can dwell as they ‘work, rest and play’.

Last week, the BID approved funding for a number of exciting grassroots, community-led ‘pop-up’ cultural events and experiential initiatives to animate the city centre and boost post-pandemic footfall.

But the ongoing saga around intu ownership, announcements this week that Debenhams have appointed restructuring consultants to draw up contingency plans to give the chain a viable future, coupled with Marks & Spencer’s admission it has been slow to respond to a ‘material shift in trade’, highlights the critical importance of re-inventing the city centre so that it is less reliant on key anchor stores.

The £200 million mixed-use Smithfield development will go some way towards transforming Hanley into a destination for people to meet, socialise, shop, work, live and access services.

Following calls for the introduction of a reinvigorated leadership model, it’s imperative for the BID, city council and other stakeholders to empower local people to help repurpose the city centre beyond retail by having a say on the businesses, services, amenities, public realm and accessible green spaces they would like to see introduced.

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A new normal experience economy will undoubtedly help the city centre, and indeed the other five towns to emerge from the disruption caused by Covid-19.

But if we are serious about building back better, then it’s time to be bold and disruptive. ‘Localism on steroids’ could be the post-pandemic wave to drive future economic prosperity.





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