Bill Grimsey throws down the gauntlet on York city centre

Internationally-renowned retail expert Bill Grimsey, threw down the gauntlet to York to prepare for the next high street revolution in a presentation to business and council leaders at The Grand Hotel in an event hosted by York Business Improvement District (York BID) for York Business Week.

Grimsey’s predictions for the future will see a high street devoid of banks, where ambient food goods are delivered from warehouses but shopping for fresh food becomes an ‘occasion’, with local produce at the heart of fresh food retail and dining – and it could come as soon as 2030.

He believes that only by working together – led by officers and elected members in the local authority, but working very closely with local businesses and community groups – can city centres continue to be vibrant. The move away from cloned high streets with all the same retailers will see the return of independents offering unique products, but with social occasions providing the catalyst to bring people back to the city centre rather than retail offerings.

“Bill Grimsey’s vision of the future of the high street is informed by experts from many different fields, and requires input from many different stakeholders if York is to follow his plan for a sustainable and vibrant city centre, and crucially, we had representatives from the council, industry leaders, retailers and entrepreneurs together in one room to hear this message. If this event can bring together all of those people and organisations to act as one, we can make real positive change for our city,” comments Andrew Lowson, executive director of York BID.

Tackling absentee landlords

At the event on November 13, Grimsey was clear that success relies on strong leadership from the local authority, and a willingness to put politics aside to create a 10 or 20 year plan for success in a fast changing environment.

He highlighted how retail has changed over the years; local markets run by local producers were replaced from the 1950s by retail outlets accessible by car, and most recently, by online accessibility with the smartphone playing a key role. But he warned that in just five years, smartphones will be obsolete – replaced by personal devices – which is going to bring a new set of challenges. He highlighted how Apple had moved from having ‘shops’ to calling them ‘town squares’, environments where people could socialise, play and shop.

He also highlighted the role of the local authority in tackling absentee landlords who were happy to leave prime high street units empty for long period of time – often pension funds happy to wait for property to increase in value to deliver a return on their investment. He showcased how Stockton on Tees had successfully employed Compulsory Purchase Orders to secure good, central premises for incubator units to help local entrepreneurs test potential markets without having to risk their personal financial security to do so.

“The number of people nodding along in agreement during Bill’s talk shows that we already have people ready and willing to buy-in to his concept for the future of the high street. We have an established retail taskforce, including the BID, Make It York, City of York Council and York Retail Forum, but clearly it should be the leaders of City of York Council – including officers and cross-party representation – that should join us at that table to establish a City Centre Commission with a focus on creating a successful long-term business plan for York’s city centre,” adds Andrew.