Thursday, 27 October 2011

Town Centre Regeneration – Learning Lessons?

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

A few weeks ago the long-awaited Douglas Wheeler Associates report on "Town Centre Regeneration: how does it work and what can be achieved?” was published by the Scottish Government. Four parts are available for download on the website: Summary, Report, TCRF Case Studies and Appendices.

The 18 month long research project set out to develop a clear understanding of activities in town centre regeneration in Scotland and the outputs and outcomes following on from these activities. Specifically the research considered the much-lauded £60m Town Centre Regeneration Fund (TCRF) and its success/progress on the ground.

One blog post can not do justice to these documents (c240 pages in total) and the research, so please go and read them yourselves, but some points need repeating here.

Ten learning points and recommendations are presented:

1. Complex concept and town centre regeneration strategies should be integrated and sited within whole town strategies.

2. Recognise scale and distinctiveness of town centres in a changing wider context.

3. Town centre regeneration needs more than physical investment.

4. Need a clear shared vision, strategy and action plan.

5. Partnership is not an outcome; effective and coordinated delivery is essential.

6. Importance of small/medium businesses and potential of community ownership of assets.

7. Improving town centre regeneration project planning; in most cases no clear results chain has been identified.

8. Improving approaches to town centre health check assessment and monitoring.

9. Current effective evaluation of town centre projects has limitations.

10. Address limitations in evaluation: apply Theories of Change.

On TCRF the research notes the importance of the intervention and the ways in which it acted as a confidence builder and accelerator of existing “off the shelf” projects. But the actual TCRF approach was criticised in terms of timescale, capital only requirements, inefficient competitive bidding and a lack of consistent baselines and outcomes. Going forward the research recommends that the TCRF, if re-run, should;

A: Look to a 3/4 year rolling programme to allow better strategic planning.

B: Phase the funding over the 3 to 4 years to allow more considered responses, designs and other potential investment.

C: Allow a longer timescale for the TCRF application process to ensure the full potential of projects and design issues are resolved.

D: Develop Theories of Change as part of the project planning process and follow through on monitoring and evaluation.

Overall the report recommends the dissemination of good practice, development of detailed appraisal criteria skills, development of outcome focused commissioning processes and skills, implementation of town centre health checks and monitoring consistency, and robust evaluation of projects.

Not much to complain about in these then. Many of the points re-iterate issues and topics that have been mentioned before, notably in the Scottish Towns Group report, though here with a stronger evidence base and specificities from the TCRF.

But for me, two things leap out of all this.

First, why are we still having to make noises about the need for clear and consistent data collection, both spatially and longitudinally? If we wish to be serious in terms of everything we do in Scotland, then good quality data has to be the basic building block. How else are we meant to know what is going on and what works and what does not?

Secondly, can we please, when we introduce schemes and proposals (and the TCRF is a good example) do so via proper planned discussion, awareness of possibilities and desired outcomes, and sustain the intervention for a reasonable period – a one-off can not be expected to solve big problems. The TCRF was rightly, much praised, but Scotland’s towns deserve more than this one-hit (and miss) wonder.

Let’s do TCRF again, this time with feeling and having learnt the valuable lessons.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Interns are not workers

This article was originally published in Better Nation

There is nothing quite like feeling passionate and angry on a wet, dreich Monday. I’m usually foaming at the mouth reading about internships at the best of time, but Nick Cohen’s excellent article in the Observer has (almost) pushed me over the edge.

Before launching into a polemic it’s worth pausing and providing a bit of context. In November 2009 graduate unemployment was spiralling out of control - youth unemployment was approaching one million, a fifth of who were graduates.

Essentially, it was making a difficult task (obtaining a paid internship in Scotland) even more challenging in an underdeveloped “intern industry”. And there was little assistance to help Scotland’s struggling graduates.

With no funding the Centre for Scottish Public Policy (CSPP) created the Adopt an Intern programme (excuse the ancient site - a new one is on the way). The aim was simple: to build a fair, accessible and transparent internship culture in Scotland. Fast forward two years and 107 paid internships have been placed with the assistance of Scottish Government funding and employer contributions across the public, private and third sectors.

It has been a huge success and the programme is now offering intern exchanges between Germany and Scotland. But enough about the CSPP. As Cohen’s article painfully points out, they are only scratching the surface. Quite clearly there are deep-seated and regressive cultural attitudes to internships.

Interns, so the argument goes, require experience in the labour market so do not deserve to be paid. Likewise, they are a different type of employee who is not protected by the Minimum wage or Equal Pay. Thus, their terms and conditions can be altered at the whim of an employer. As new Defence Secretary Philip Hammond (the richest man in the Cabinet) said:

“I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other Members are obtaining for nothing.”

How frugal. It is no surprise, then, to find new companies popping up to provide free interns and quell demand. One of the companies Cohen highlighted is Etsio. Curiosity got the better of me and I checked out their website. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t.

The FAQs section is worth quoting in detail because it’s illustrative of the norms and values embedded in London’s internship culture. I couldn’t resist adding some comments.


Why should I pay for a job?

You aren't paying for a job (yes you are). You're buying experience. Most applicants we come across don't have any experience that would make them useful to our employers (students don’t have work experience? I don’t know what graduates they know).

And remember that our work experience clients are putting themselves at risk by exposing their trade secrets, customers and inside information to you. That isn't the kind of experience that you can get elsewhere.

How much do I have to pay? (Yes, they have to pay for the privilege of working for free)

Each employer sets their own daily fees.

Employers & Interns

Is it ethical? (Mmm)
With students now paying £40,000 for a university education - but zero useful experience for an employer - we don't think it's unreasonable for them to pay a few hundred pounds to get invaluable real life experience.

And many of our employers are small businesses who wouldn't normally take on an intern. Etsio opens up the market to whole new areas. And applicants get to see how real businesses work. (If you or your parents can afford it)

It's definitely morally suspect for an intern to take the place of a worker; and that happens all over the Western world at present. But (a big BUT) the Etsio service allows applicants to get a ringside view of what it's like to work in the amazing businesses that feature in Etsio.

Is it legal?
Yes. It's a legal requirement to pay workers a minimum wage. But the interns are not workers: they don't have regular tasks, they aren't under the control of the employer, and they can come and go as they please. The intern is paying to learn, just as they pay to attend university. (All of this is complete and utter nonsense).

How does Etsio make its money?

By adding a small admin charge. It's included in the fee that's shown against each employer. There are no other charges.”

There is no shortage of organisations or politicians (a certain Mr Clegg comes to mind) that could have been named and shamed. The list is long, very long and by no means is it restricted to England (see Kezia Dugdale’s article). The exploitation of interns (graduates who will become critical to the success of the national economy) will continue until we settle some basic, fundamental questions:

1. If interns are not workers then what are they?
2. What rights do interns possess in the workplace?
3. Should interns be paid (at least) a Minimum wage?
4. At what point in the internship does an intern become an employee? 6 months? 9 months? A year?

The dictionary defines a slave as “a person who works in harsh conditions for low pay”. I’ll let you decide whether an unpaid intern is a slave. But one thing we all should be able to agree on is this: paid internships, a “proven access point to professions”, are central to making a fair, equitable and mobile society.


Barry McCulloch, CSPP Policy Manager

This article is the view of Barry and not necessarily the CSPP.

Christmas and Hogmanay had better be good

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail (a number of graphs are available in the original post)

Two sets of figures out this week:

CPI is 5.2%; RPI is 5.6% (where did the 2% target go?)

Scottish Retail Sales: Total up 0.8%, Like for Like down 0.6% (UK comparables +2.5% and +0.3%).

As the Scottish Retail Consortium note in their commentary on their (SRC-KPMG Scottish Retail Sales Monitor) sales figures, put these two sets of data together and you can see why retailers in Scotland are in deep trouble. With consumer inflation way ahead of retail sales, business inflation equally high (and that’s forgetting any “health levy”), disposable incomes set to fall further and job losses in the public and other sectors likely to increase, Christmas and Hogmanay are the only real potential bright spots on the horizon.

Scotland has now underperformed the UK for almost the last two years, with the detailed figures showing a real collapse in non-food sales in Scotland. The only hope is that we get a good festive season to tide retailers over. Given the huge sales and proportion of profits made at this time of the year by retailers, there is much still to gain – and lose. A bad Christmas and we could see quite a lot of closures in the New Year. A good Christmas – if consumers loosen their belts a bit and celebrate – or if retailers have bought and managed costs well – will see them well placed to soldier on.

The problem for retailers is that consumers are nervous about the future and worried about their costs, whether it be energy or food. As a result they are holding back big purchases, trading down to value and lower brand points, perhaps paying off debts at record low rates and generally hunkering down. Yes, there is the occasional treat and replacement of luxuries, but for many it is about surviving.

The Scottish Government is reported as saying that it was doing all it could, within its current powers, to boost economic security and consumer confidence in “tough times”. “Measures such as the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and no tuition fees are helping promote consumption in Scotland by protecting household budgets at a time of rising inflation and fuel prices.”

However, I am not sure such measures actually “promote consumption”. Do consumers see the money they don’t have to pay for prescriptions as money they can then spend on other things, given the rising costs of fuel etc? I doubt it. I suspect they recognise the lack of added costs, but don’t equate this to “go out and spend”.

It does make one wonder therefore why all the effort and fuss about Quantitative Easing (which seems to be a case of “do X and hope like anything that Y happens, and if it doesn’t do X again”) putting money into and through the banking system. I wonder what would happen if a scheme could be devised to put money directly into the hands of consumers, to be spent on consumer goods through (all or some) shops? Might that have a more direct effect on promoting consumpiton and supporting some hard pressed businesses?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Great Tram Disaster

CSPP Board Member Richard Kerley was interviewed on the BBC's recent documentary into Edinburgh Trams.

Fast foward to 5:15 and 11:46 for Professor Kerley's comments.

Tesco Trails

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

A few weeks ago the “feel” of the university changed dramatically as the undergraduates and new postgraduates descended for the new semester. A sure sign Christmas is round the corner.

There are always plenty of students around in the summer – postgrads doing dissertations and projects and various summer schools and other classes (not the bagpipe school again – please). But the new semester with brand new first year students marks a changing of the seasons.

For some reason I was thinking of this when the Tesco interim results came out last week. The Tesco machine has spluttered in the UK in recent years – if still having a market share in food of over 30% can be called a splutter. Sales have been lacklustre (they are not alone in this), but market share has edged down.

And then it struck me. The first year students this year will have been born when Tesco was already the #1 food retailer in the UK. They will never have lived through anything else – and that is quite remarkable.

For so long in my lifetime, Sainsbury were the prince of grocers, but in the early 1990s the upstart Tesco barrow-boys knocked them off #1 via a stream of initiatives – clubcard, value lines, express and metro stores, supply chain revolution, internationalisation, Every Little Helps corporate branding – which 20 years on. continue to deliver.

One other plank of the this #1 takeover was of course the purchase of Willie Lows (if you are one of my students you will have to ask your parents who they were) from the jaws of a Sainsbury takeover. Outbidding Sainsbury seemed rash at the time. but it made Tesco truly national (UK) for the first time and catapaulted upwards their previously limited market share in Scotland. if Sainsbury had held their nerve and outbid Tesco, how much would have been different in Scotland today?

A few other things caught my eye in the Tesco interims:

65% of floorspace is now outside the UK
49% of stores are now outside the UK
34% of sales are outside the UK
28% of profit is outside the UK

Tesco is truly international and increasingly reliant on its internationalisation for growth.

And in the UK? Much noise about The Big Price Drop, which for me is a rebalancing of approach. One of the lessons of the Sainsbury fall from grace was the way in which they got so out of line in consumers’ eyes on price. Tesco are determined not to do the same thing. Operationally they remain powerful.

One other snippet – between February and August 2011, Tesco added 150 stores to their UK portfolio, of which 142 were smaller than 3000 sq ft. Yes, some were One-stop, but even so.

Given this rate and format of development and Tesco’s ubiquity, it’s no wonder my students can not imagine anyone else being at #1. And yet, we said this about Sainsbury, once upon a time. Complacency in retailing is very dangerous – something Tesco are well aware of.

"Keeping on track"

Richard Kerley - Holyrood Magazine

There is an old, old expression used in discussing public policy and public projects: ‘success has many parents; failure is an orphan.’ Bear that in mind as you read ever more about the Edinburgh trams story/ saga/debacle and observe various parties (both political and otherwise) scattering from the back wash of blame.

What can we do about it? What can we learn from it? For the moment I’ll pass on the first question (and leave that to the people who get paid for it) but I shall try and offer some observations on what we might learn, or at the very least, what we might ask that will help us learn.

The first thing we might learn is that many major infrastructure projects run over time and over budget; regardless of country, regardless of whether they are public or private sector projects. There’s quite a lot of history to this: the Suez Canal (private, late and 1900 per cent over budget); the Humber Bridge (public, late, 175 per cent over budget).

Margaret Thatcher consciously and deliberately insisted that the Channel Tunnel should be a private concession to ensure economic and efficient completion. The result: 80 per cent over budget, late, traffic projections only 30 per cent achieved, and a shareholder wipe-out.

International studies cover 200 + projects in more than 20 developed countries and suggest that ‘fixed rail ‘links are the worst culprits for cost and timetable overruns and failures to achieve passenger forecasts.

So ‘hey ho‘ to the proposed Borders rail line; ‘fixed links‘ are another major category of project time and cost overrun – so don’t assume the second Forth road bridge is done and dusted.

The second aspect that will be a fascinating element of the promised public inquiry, and the management case studies that will surely be used for years to come, is the multiplicity of organisations involved in this – all with particular and often different interests.

This is not just about Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, created to deal with the proposed congestion charge and now being quietly disposed of by the council.

I happen to think there is a good case for councils creating such organisations but somehow it went badly wrong here. Ever longer articulation links in decision making have to be well handled and thought about in advance rather than patched mid-way.

There are also all the other organisations involved, starting with and including the governments pre- and post 2007. The pre-2007 coalition rushed through some tram decisions just before the election, and the new minority government failed to properly assess the case for the Edinburgh trams or the Edinburgh airport rail link against each other.

Same city label, but big difference; one was planned to serve the city; one to serve dozens of towns and communities throughout Scotland. The end result of failing to consider both together is that the now planned tram line (as I write) will go from the airport to a city station . . . but the wrong station, and I suspect not many people will get on and off at intermediate stops.

There is also a myriad of technical questions to be asked and answers to be sought, some of which, I suspect, are way beyond the comfort range and knowledge of lay people, unless they invest a vast amount of time and energy; and they usually do this because they are protagonists.

Roll on the promised public inquiry – though I suspect it will be here before my tram will be.

Professor Richard Kerley, CSPP Board Member & Professor of Management, Queen Margaret University

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Raising Dough

Leigh Sparks - Stirling Retail

A few months ago in an email exchange arising from one of my posts, I learned about a retail business start-up that might come to fruition. Well, this week (6th October) it happens.

Dunbar is to see the opening of what is claimed to be Scotland’s first community owned artisan bakery called “The Bakery”!

In 2008, the town’s last bakery closed. Since then over 300 mainly local residents have raised £38K to open a new high street bakery, and drawn in support from a range of other organisations.

Set up as an Industrial and Provident Society (a community co-operative), shareholders will not receive a dividend, but will instead be entitled to a 10% discount on all baked goods purchased at The Bakery.

Profits will be ploughed back into the business and the local community. This is not a volunteer operated business, but one that is professionally managed and run – something that has meant eligibility for some grants has been problematic.

The story since 2008 appears not to be plain sailing, and some of the pitfalls are noted on their website. But at a time of closures, doom and gloom, it’s nice to have a positive story to read about and mention.

I have no stake in The Bakery, but do know some of the people involved – and they have also been involved in some other retail-led regeneration stories. I do not know if The Bakery will work/succeed, but wish it all the best. A Scottish artisan bakery with a local and organic ethos, and the support of many local residents, deserves to succeed.

What I hope though, is that this will not be last such story we hear of this type. The recession causes problems but it also creates some opportunities. One of the lessons for Scotland may be that local start-up enterprises and businesses will have to take up the slack from the multiple withdrawal from locations.

This location and community involvement will not necessary be easy, but it will provide a sense of place and difference as well as vital local provision and jobs. Let’s hope there is enough support and skill out there to make such things happen.

More critically we also have to understand what barriers there are to this local entrepreneurial activity. It is over three years and many twists and turns since Dunbar’s original bakery closed due to retirement; why does it take so long and have so many obstacles in the way? Towns, villages and other places need facilities and development now, not in some distant future.

If you’re in Dunbar, go and have a look – comment here on what you find. Better still buy some bread and other goodies – and if you like it, spread the news. We need more distinct and diverse local retailers to add diversity and specialism, in Dunbar and across Scotland.