Let the Festivities Begin

The autumnal months are traditionally important months for retailers but the three month period in the lead up to Christmas 2018 could be ‘make or break’ for many.  Traditional high street retailers are having to contend with the uncertainty of the value of the pound in the run up to Brexit, rising operational costs, and intense competition from online retailers. Indeed, the ‘Use it or Lose it’ message was made loud and clear for our High Streets a couple of weeks ago with the accountancy giant PwC reporting a net loss in the number of multiple retailing stores across the country, with Greater London and the South East recording the greatest losses in the first half of 2018. This trend looks set to continue as the latest footfall data published by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Springboard also reveal a continuing decline. However, a buoyant Halloween and festive sales period can help High Street retailers over the line at the end of the financial year.

In an attempt to bolster footfall, many towns and cities now exploit consumers’ sentimentality around this festive time of year by launching Christmas markets and events. These usually involve temporary structures in public squares or on under-utilised land or in unused buildings, as market stalls and pop-up restaurants and bars, and are often accompanied by family-orientated activities such as ice rinks and fun fairs.  The temporary retail and leisure uses function as a magnet to draw consumers into our urban centres. Furthermore, late night opening enables willing retailers to extend their period of trade to capitalise on the greater flow of pedestrians and festive spirit.

Flexibility is the key to the success of such events, both within and beyond the festive period, with planning authorities, retailers, leisure operators and landowners needing to adapt and innovate to allow these seasonal events to happen. Examples of the necessary adaptations required include the granting of temporary planning permission required for material changes of use, the issuing of temporary market licenses or contracts by local authorities to market organisers and landowners providing ground leases or licenses, much shorter than the standard terms achieved on the High Street, to enable the short term use of land or buildings. None of these are currently impossible, but can be very restricted and certainly protracted. Suitable space in an accessible central location, is fundamental if an urban centre is to maximise the benefits provided by such initiatives. Yet, the availability of such space represents a “wicked problem” that requires further “outside the plot” thinking. Vacant private land is not desirable at other times, while using scarce public realm for commercial activities can also be contentious. Somehow the right balance between state and market needs to be found if our towns and cities are to have the flexibility and resilience to respond to and accommodate future structural changes.

In the five case studies as part of this ESRC funded project we are seeing similar festive adaptations taking form. The Glasgow Christmas Markets return to George Square and St Enoch Square, while a spectacular fireworks display and music extravaganza opened the Edinburgh Christmas Market in East Princes Street Gardens. The Christmas Market also returns to Liverpool in St George’s Hall and is accompanied by an Ice Festival on the Waterfront, while Nottingham hosts a Winter Wonderland and Christmas market. For the first time this year Hull has a German Christmas Market in King Edward Square with a bazaar and other events planned throughout the city. Adaptations, such as temporary uses like these that have become popular, and other innovative land uses will be studied as part of this project.

— Allison Orr

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