As the British Council for Shopping Centres conference closes for another year, Michael Green, chief executive of BCSC, talks to Place North West about market sentiment, the future of the high street, and the conference's move out of the regions into London.
"We are a national organisation, and for 20 years we never came to London. It felt like the right time for the market, the appetite was there, and with our desire to become more international the move made sense.
Green confirmed that London was the frontrunner to host the conference again next year, but said: "We don't want to be London centric, BCSC is still all about the regions. But it is about finding the right location, to support doing deals, networking, learning, and of course socialising."
In terms of the feeling in the market, and around the BCSC exhibition area, Green summed it up as "cautious optimism". He said "We are on the right side of the curve, but we still have a lot of growth to go and that might not be rapid. Most importantly though, this year we have seen deals being done and people are doing business.
"I was at M&S for 20 years, and my old boss would say 'never prolong an existing season, anticipate a new one', and that is exactly what the retail sector is doing now and what has been apparent at BCSC this year."
A key topic at the conference was the future of the high street and the role of local councils, something that was stressed in keynote speaker Penny Mordaunt MP's first speech since becoming minister for high streets. Community involvement was essential, said Mordaunt, in ensuring that each town has a unique and appropriate offer.
A good relationship between the people and the local authorities was key, agreed Green. "Change is needed in how most high streets operate," he said. "Most importantly, there needs to be encouraging signs for retailers to come to an area, and that means regeneration needs to have started, with a clear message from the location that there is a plan in place.
"To make it work, there needs to be a bit of everything; with a push from the government, and effective public and private collaboration the recovery of the high street stands a chance, but the Treasury also has to come to the party and the planning process needs to be easier."
The massive variation for the retail sector across the regions means that each town will need to work hard to find its own unique selling point, according to Green. "In the North West, there is a massive over supply of retail units, so there needs to be a clever use of space, perhaps contracting the retail offer in some areas, in order to raise the quality of the remaining shops. Developing residential is key to this, in my opinion not enough of an impact has been felt yet from retail to residential change of use planning laws," he said. "We have to make community hubs, as interaction is what draws people in, and a resi offer with an increase in 'living over the shop', would have a massive impact on retail and the vibrancy of an area."
For the next 12 months, Green predicted that development activity would dominate the market. "In order to build on the optimism we've seen here, and draw in occupiers, the development pipeline needs to open up. I expect to see more scheme on the high street, not just new, but also adapting existing space."