Major retailers contniue to invest in Nottingham despite "misleading" figures
LIFE is full of seasonal rituals. Christmas comes and goes, there's a cold snap in January, and come February you might just get a token of affection somewhere around the middle of the month, writes Ben Tebbutt, director of FHP.
I don't have a crystal ball, but I can confidently predict that Nottingham will have had something other than a Valentine's card.
It will come in the form of a report from Local Data Company telling us that lots of our shops are standing empty.
LDC's annual report has also become a ritual. Not just because it says pretty much the same thing every year – but because here in Nottingham it is greeted with ritual disbelief by all the professionals involved in retailing and commercial property.
Last year, we were told that more than 30 per cent of Nottingham's shops were standing empty. Think about it – a third of city retail premises apparently had nothing in them.
Isn't that shocking? I'll say.
What shocks me most is that intelligent people – all the way from Nottingham to some national newspapers – take palpably misleading figures at face value. They do it, of course, because the economy is struggling and there is a steady trickle of stories telling us that retail chains we all know and love have hit trouble.
So a third of shops being empty in Nottingham must be right? Wrong.
Let's get this straight. LDC uses an old, out-of-date map of Nottingham. They count shops which are not part of the city centre. They even count shops which have been shut by their owners because they want to spend money refurbishing them – such as large swathes of Broadmarsh, for example.
Yes, there are empty shops in Nottingham – but nowhere near 30 per cent of them.
Our own surveys, and those of the city council, suggest it is nothing like that figure.
FHP's own retail report – which draws on a street-level market knowledge which goes back two decades – suggests that it is only 10.37 per cent, a drop on last year.
Nottingham City Council's latest analysis, with figures provided by Experian, shows a vacancy rate of 18.2 per cent – even this figure is wrong in that it includes non-retail uses within the BID boundary.
Whichever way you look at it, there are two robust and informed analyses which say the vacancy rate hasn't risen anything like the way that LDC suggests.
Even at an anecdotal level, there have been too many major retail deals in Nottingham over the past year for LDC's assessment to ring true.
All credit to LDC – they know how to serve up a ready-made headline.
My big beef with them is that High Street retailing is being challenged like never before, but a simple count of a specific type of retail property is not an accurate representation of the vitality of destinations such as Nottingham. Nor is it helpful in identifying solutions to the challenges we face.
Common sense tells you that a weak economy and the rise of the internet are to blame for at least some of the problems. There just isn't enough money around for some of the chains which grew up during the boom, and shopping online has an undeniable convenience for some goods.
Planning rules and regulations don't help. Limits on the amount of a particular type of retailing in a town aren't relevant to the way the world is now, and areas which it's obvious shoppers don't visit anymore need to be opened up by councils to different kinds of use.
As for car parking – the idea that people should have to pay more to visit shops in this kind of climate is barking mad, and the evidence is all around us.
But online shopping still represents only a small proportion of retail sales and it is a mistake to fall into the trap of thinking that the High Street is doomed.
Yes, it is going to struggle in some towns. But Nottingham is not a town – it's a major city, a regional destination and it has one of the highest levels of retail spending outside London.
There's something else we seem to forget when the LDC figures land. Major investment is on the way here. Huge sums are being spent expanding the tram, widening the A453 and sprucing up the railway station. Millions are going into a Creative Quarter on the doorstep of the city centre. And, while I know we've waited a long time for it to happen, I think we're also likely to be told about major investment in our shopping centres too.
Even before these investments happen, retailers are still spending money opening up here – Cath Kidston, JoJo Maman Bebe and Patisserie Valerie have all set up shop here in the last few months. Hugo Boss didn't just set up shop – it spent more than £1 million on a new store on Bridlesmith Gate. John Lewis is going to invest millions improving its Nottingham store.
We have a retail and leisure business improvement district in the city which is also doing everything it can to make it easier for people to shop here and give them more to see and experience. Their work is important and it would be great to see more entertainment and more for the tourist in this city.
All this investment is going to put money into our economy, bring people and businesses in and make it easier for them to move around. It will improve the city as a retail and leisure destination.
While we're on that subject, did you know that LDC doesn't include coffee shops, bars and restaurants in its count? These play a key part in making people stay and spend more time here and retailers like to see plenty of them.
This is another reason why LDC gives you only a partial picture of what's really going on here.
Yes, we need to face up to some awkward realities. High Streets are challenged, some retailers are struggling, some will not last and planners need to recognise this. But we shouldn't be doing our city down on the basis of a misleading survey which doesn't reflect reality.
For the reasons I've outlined above, nor do we need to.
There is a lot to love about Nottingham as a retail destination – and not just on Valentine's Day!