Bill Grimsey is currently advising the Labour Party on what to do about our high streets, an experience he described as "a bit like knitting fog", as well as travelling around Britain and Europe advising towns and cities on how to face a radically different future. He was also dismissive of the much-hyped efforts of Mary Portas who was in it "mainly to help herself".
Lampeter is by far the smallest of the places he has visited, and parts of his message are probably more relevant to larger towns, but what he had to say should give us all pause for thought.
The essence of Grimsey's argument is that we are living in an age of unprecedented change which is being driven by technology. High streets will look very different in just 10-15 years from now, and this is not a process we can halt or reverse. The challenge for our towns is how we adapt to the change.
Key points made by Grimsey include:
- Many of the larger retail groups are burdened with debt and have far too much bricks and mortar. They will be forced to cut back drastically on their physical presence in our towns as more and more shopping moves on line.
- One of the big four supermarket chains will go bust within the next 5-10 years. Grimsey thinks it could be either Morrisons or Sainsbury's. Other big names which fail to react and adapt will go the same way.
- In the not too distant future, more and more grocery shopping will be done online and delivered to your home. Click and collect does not have a future.
- Increasingly manufacturers will sell direct to the public. Your tube of Colgate toothpaste bought direct from the manufacturer would be very much cheaper if you cut out the middlemen.
- This development could create opportunities for new businesses selling fresh food (fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, dairy, bread, etc.).
- Independent retailers will be key to the survival of our high streets. Don't become a clone town.
- Towns such as Lampeter and others in the region need to look at what their unique selling points are and develop a long term vision with detailed 5 year plans. These need to be developed by communities, local authorities and politicians working together.
- Whatever happens, there will be fewer shops. Towns need to develop as hubs which include a mix of education and health provision, entertainment, housing and shops. By having libraries, schools, doctors' surgeries, cinemas, etc. in our high streets, you will bring in people who will also shop.
- Towns need to wire up and provide free wifi. Even small retailers need to develop apps so that they can communicate with their customers.
- Councils need to see their town centre car parks as assets rather than sources of revenue. It was a huge mistake to allow free parking in out-of-town retail parks while charging for parking in town centres.
- In the specific case of Lampeter, it was a great mistake to allow the merger of the university with Trinity College and the University of Wales. The university is the town's biggest asset, and it should fight tooth and claw to protect it.
- The banks will continue to withdraw from our high streets, and this will be a particular problem for smaller towns. One possible solution may be crowd funding, and Grimsey cited the case of "Bank of Dave".
So where does this leave the Teifi Valley and towns slightly further afield, such as Carmarthen?
The Teifi Valley suffers from being divided between three local authorities - Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. There would be a much better chance of developing a long term vision for the likes of Lampeter, Llanysul, Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan if the towns came under a single local authority prepared to listen and work with local people.
Working with communities and listening rather than imposing top-down plans would be enough to rule Carmarthenshire County Council out of the running, but over and above that is the threat posed by the council leadership's increasing enthusiasm for becoming part of the Swansea Bay City Region. That may make sense for Llanelli and the Amman Valley (only may), but for much of the rural north and west of Carmarthenshire it is a recipe for neglect.
The Local Development Plan currently being imposed on Carmarthenshire is a vision of how town centres were in the 1980s. The council has a love affair with big brand names, big supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks.
If Bill Grimsey's predictions come true, and I wouldn't want to bet against that, the future for towns like Carmarthen looks even darker than the fate which awaits Lampeter, Newcastle Emlyn, etc. The council's vision for Carmarthen is a clone town, and it is surely only a matter of time before the vast and near-empty Debenhams flagship store with its permanent sales goes the same way as the old department store in King Street.
In Cardigan, just as in Lampeter, there are a worrying number of empty shops and too many charities. The restoration of the castle in Cardigan will give the town a boost, and much has been done to give the High Street a facelift, but what will the impact on independent retailers be if and when Sainsbury's finally opens its doors on the Bath House site and triggers Tesco's currently dormant expansion plans?
In Newcastle Emlyn the town has managed to avoid empty shops despite rather than because of the County Council. Car parking charges are being ramped up year on year, and the council has bent over backwards to try to encourage a new supermarket on the Cawdor site which would dwarf the rest of the town.
Those are the negatives, but the Teifi Valley has a lot going for it. Tourism is an important contributor to the local economy, but we could be a destination for high-end tourism rather than high volume, low profit caravan parks.
All of the towns in the area have a long tradition of independent retailers; there are lots of very good local producers and from a tourist point of view, we have beautiful and unspoiled natural surroundings. Viewed as a whole, the area is also well served with supermarkets.
The Welsh Government recently identified the Teifi Valley as an area where it wants to devote additional resources to promoting and developing the use of Welsh. As well as underpinning the language in local communities, there is evidence that the language and culture are much more of an economic asset than people realise. Many overseas visitors, for example, like the fact that we have our own unique language and culture and are disappointed when they see and hear English everywhere. This is not West England.
The key to ensuring that we have a viable future, it seems to me, lies in developing a long-term vision for the area as a whole with strong and energetic political leadership, and communities joining forces to make things happen. The biggest obstacle to that is being parcelled up into different local authorities and constituencies and planning authorities which, at least in the case of Carmarthenshire, work against the interests of local communities.