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I recently spent a very enjoyable day at the races.  I do love to see Chester buzzing and the bars and restaurants doing well during the May Festival.  Friends of mine from London came with me had a great time too.  They loved Chester but said how surprised they were to see so many empty shops, especially as we walked down Watergate Street. 

Speculation followed as to the possible reasons.  Some in our group were quick to blame the local council; although to be fair I have no idea if that’s remotely accurate.  Someone threw in the UK’s business rates policy, while most agreed that the rise of out of town retail parks started the decline of the city centre.  Of course, we have a fair share of those locally, including the giants at Cheshire Oaks and Trafford Centre.

This got me thinking about a presentation I saw late last year by Tom Walker of the fund management group, Schroders.  One of their more specialist funds is the Global Cities Fund, which invests in property around the globe.  What’s unique about this fund is that initially the managers focus solely on dynamics of the city.  They employ rigorous criteria that the city must pass, based on many factors such as university ranking, population and household income, before they even consider looking for property.  Sadly, London is the only UK city that scores in their top 30.

What I really found interesting in their presentation was his view on future shopping habits.  He firmly believes that the high street as we remember it is dead and will not be coming back and that high streets will soon be almost exclusively given over to leisure and residential use, along with a few specialist shops.  Interestingly, he also feels that the days of the out of town retail parks are numbered, citing what’s happening in America, which he feels is always around 20 years ahead of us.  Over there they are struggling to renew leases in the large shopping malls and he gives a one-word reason – Amazon!

I have kids in their twenties and they wouldn’t dream of driving into Chester (or anywhere else), paying to park and walking around, often in the rain, buying items when they can instead be delivered to their door at the click of a button.

The problems facing the high street are plain to see I feel that planning rules and business rates policy needs to change before we see the city centre with fewer empty shops.

By the way, in case you are wondering, one winner out of six, £45 quid down on the day!

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