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Business Doesn’t Have To Be Bad

Untitled-1As a businessperson, a long time retailer, and now a retail commentator and journalist, one of the most difficult things for me to reconcile is my involvement in the promotion of consumerism.

That’s at odds with my more recent conviction that we can’t continue to squander the world’s finite resources on WANTS, whilst ignoring the NEEDS of most of the planet’s population.

The Green Party might be seen by some as an anti-capitalist movement. We are however a broad church with many facets. I was encouraged to become a candidate BECAUSE of my business experience rather than in spite of it, and I saw that as an encouraging aspect.

I’ve run large companies, and I now run a small one. I’m probably something of a gamekeeper turned poacher. But I’ve seen both sides of this debate and come to realise that the idea of continual economic growth is indeed a myth. And one we have to stop believing before we run out of road.

I was at the launch of a new book by Naomi Klein a few months ago.  She makes some interesting points about the connections between environmental issues and the global economy.  The basic tenet is that when resources and commodities are monetised on the kinds of scale they are now, the result is economic and environmental catastrophe. And we’re just getting a taste of that.

The direct impacts are of course climate change, which if you ascribe to that view, is starting to bring with it the kinds of drastic changes in weather patterns that we’ve seen in recent years.

These are all things we’re having to come to terms with now and they’re all traceable to global economic activity. They affect all our lives, not just personally, but in broader human and economic terms.

I’m a vocal advocate of social enterprise, and believe that there are many big businesses out there that can be made to take a more ethical and responsible stance if we create the right conditions to encourage it.  And happily for me there is already a growing movement within the more enlightened areas of the business world towards ethical business and sustainable capitalism.

That might sound like some thing of an oxymoron, but in many sectors of business now there’s a realisation dawning that if we continue to squeeze the pips of the economy, we’ll eventually run out of juice.

Amidst calls from some people for a revolution against rampant capitalism, I see the future as more of an evolution towards a business ethos that views social justice and connection with local and national communities as an asset, rather than an inconvenience.  I’m certainly not anti-capitalist, but I am anti-unfettered capitalism. I agree that the market should be allowed to decide some things. But I believe the state has the job of holding us all to account for our actions and tempering the excesses of marketisation to prevent it working against the common good.

And it’s not just us greeny types taking up this mantra. Many key economists and business commentators are now having similar epiphanies about how business and consumption needs to be managed in a sustainable, responsible and accountable way, if we’re all going to avoid a backlash against the kinds of excesses and irresponsible business practices that became prevalent over the past 20 or 30 years.

Essentially businesses need to grow up and take responsibility for the societies we’ve helped to create.

I’ve recently become very interested in something now being called the circular economy, where consumption itself is fed back into the creation of new resources and products.  This doesn’t just encompass recycling, but also upcycling and renewable energy as part of the manufacturing process, along with emergent technologies, social media, and the fourth economy, comprising enterprises that not only make a profit for business owners, but also put something back into the social economy.

That might all sound a bit hippy and tree-huggy, but it’s something that’s being taken very seriously now by many key figures in the business world. Most notably Bill Gates and Richard Branson. And with good reason.

If you can make money with clean conscience, look after your employees, business partners, suppliers, and most importantly the planet AND enjoy what you’re doing, what’s not to like?

You also get to sleep pretty well at night too

So I hope I can convince you that there is scope within a Green World for enterprise and innovation. Without the need for a constantly growing economy and an ever greater consumption of the worlds finite resources.

With the potential for over a million green jobs out there, and an ethical economy that has only scratched the surface of an emerging market, there are plenty of opportunities for business leaders and entrepreneurs in a future Green and pleasant land.

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Visit to Banbury Market 17th January 2015

market sheetLast week myself and John Haywood from the Banbury and Cherwell Green Party visited the market in central Banbury to speak to the stall holders about the changes being proposed to this 1000 year old tradition in the heart of an historic town.

We spoke with all the stallholders present, although sadly they were only 10 of them trading on the day.  They were all all opposed to Cherwell District Council’s illogical and damaging decision to restrict the stalls to the Cornhill end of the Market Place.  A plan also supported by the Conservative controlled Town Council.

I started my own 25 year long retail career on a market stall, and worked it for 7 years with my partner though rain, hail sleet, snow and sunshine.  I know how difficult it can be to make a living and how fragile the trading environment can be.  Your livelihood can depend on so many variable factors, and one of the major fears is losing your regular pitch, for whatever reason.

It may seem silly to anyone who hasn’t traded in a market themselves, but where your stall sits can make all the difference between success and failure.  The location of competing trades, the flow of people moving through the market, who your neighbours are, your visibility and prominence in the market as a whole are all desperately important.

There appears to have been absolutely no consultation with stall holders or customers about these unpopular changes, and based on what stallholders and visitors told me I foresee them being the death knell for this historic trading post as more and more traders fall by the wayside.

So what seems like a minor change to the council, will probably be anything but to the people trying to make a living out of the market.  This move could likely kill it off!  it’s already become smaller and therefore less popular, especially over the last 20 years. In 1997 there were 120 stalls, now its down to less than 20.

Considering it’s reduced pull for consumers it’s completely incongruous that the rents being charged by the private firm managing on behalf of the council are almost double that charged by neighbouring markets such as Abingdon, Aylesbury, Hinkley, Oxford and Thame.  And as with most things these days, the rent goes up every year.  Meanwhile trade is slowly dwindling away to nothing, leaving regular and loyal traders quite literally out in the cold.

saleThe Council’s plan includes opening the Market car park for use on Thursdays and Fridays. There is no evidence to suggest this will increase car park usage and revenue to the Council – people already using other car parks such as that near to the Matalan Store will simply park in the market place instead.

Government initiatives on town centre regeneration called for more emphasis and support for market days and the traders that build and run these vital hubs of trade and local amenity in our towns and cities.  The Portas review cited markets as one of the easiest ways that town centres could be revitalised and kept alive.  Why then is the Conservative run Cherwell Council ignoring the views of it’s own established market traders?  Why are they proposing moves that could potentially irreparably damage trade in such an established and once vibrant local fixture?

Banbury market should be seen by Cherwell Council as an asset to the town.  They should be supporting it actively and engaging with the traders and customers to find ways of safeguarding the it’s future, rather than taking unilateral actions with no consultation.

This is a Charter Market, which bestows on Banbury the status of a Market Town.  By birthright it should be located in the Market Square.

I would urge Cherwell councillors to do what I did.  Take a walk around the market and speak to the people whose livelihoods are in their hands.  Speak also to the local residents and patrons of the market and ask them what they think about the priorities that they are planning to enforce on everyone.

This is not a decision that can be taken just by moving squares on a map.

me and john landscape

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Oxford Finally Flips The Switch On The On/Off Shopping Centre

westgateoxfordAfter what seems like centuries of wrangling, planning applications, withdrawn projects, hand shaking and head banging, Oxford is finally set to join other cities with a giant shiny shopping centre nobody really needs any more.

Having experienced the damage that these behemoths can do to small local retailers, myself included, this is a moment I and many others have dreaded.

The council of course has applied a heavy spin on the whole project, whilst ushering the developers and large multi-nationals into the city with wide-eyed certainty that a new shopping centre will solve all the problems we now have.

We know at least one of those problems – that of affordable housing in the city centre – won’t even be dented by this grandiose project.  In a move that is frankly baffling from a socialist led council, planners have dashed all hopes that the accommodation element designed into the revamped centre would be for social housing or affordable homes.  Whilst Green councillors opposed this move, others apparently felt that poorer people won’t be able to keep the new apartments up to the standards they expect to be demanded.

So no comfortable inner-city pied-à-terres for the ordinary folk of Oxford then.  Which is a shame considering Oxford City Council provided virtually nothing for that sector last year, despite claims that this was a priority policy.

Jobs are not the only thing to consider

Judging by the analyses carried out over the past 10 years it looks highly likely that the new Westgate extension in Oxford will have a significant impact on other retail destinations both in the immediate vicinity and county wide.

The council has claimed that 3400 jobs will be created by the opening of the new centre, which seems like a rather optimistic number to me.  Even if one accepts that figure, previous analyses have suggested that the number of jobs created will be far outweighed by those that will be destroyed elsewhere in the city and the surrounding areas.

It’s very easy to focus just on the number of jobs created, but when similar centres have opened there have been many casualties in other areas. This doesn’t even take into account the damage that’s likely to be done to trade during the building and infrastructure works and the impact of additional competition for small retailers that attracting large multi-nationals into the area will provide.

In an era where many retail chains are looking to reduce their portfolios, the time for this centre has been and gone. There’s already plenty of retail space in Oxford city centre, some of it lying vacant even now. Until the council addresses the systemic issues with people visiting the city, such as parking, local transport and city centre management, a revamped shopping centre isn’t going to add that much prosperity to a town encircled by much better alternatives.

The new shopping centre will likely have some novelty value for a few months, but once the realities of trading in Oxford begin to bite, I doubt it’ll be anything more than another usual-suspect clone-town brand zoo.

Years of disruption

According to a recent article in the Oxford Mail, a scrutinising committee of city centre councillors are due to meet to discuss ways of keeping businesses alive during the hugely disruptive infrastructure works needed for the new extension.

roadworksSo Oxford City Council wait until AFTER the works have begun to think about how to mitigate the problems that will inevitably be caused by the works?

Another great example of the forethought and careful planning we’ve come to expect from our wonderful city council!

I was at a meeting with both the city and county council leaders over a year ago where I highlighted the potential damage that will be done by the infrastructure works required for the Westgate extension. Having already experienced the same in Bristol a few years before, it was clear to me and many others that the likely upheaval required for the Westgate works were going to do more damage than they were likely to be worth in the current climate.

Seems like it all fell on deaf ears. As usual.

Empty shops

My business in Cornmarket Street closed it’s doors for the last time after 20 years last year. Despite numerous pronouncements in the press that the city council was eager to support local businesses, we got zip-all support, even after asking on several occasions.  Indeed, at one point their planning department were very close to scuppering the only deal we could achieve to sell the store. Had they not done a last minute U-turn there would have been one more empty and un-lettable shop in the city centre.

Councillors are also now apparently worried about the growing number of empty shops in the city, despite previous claims that there were queues of businesses eager to take space.  Perhaps news has started to filter out that retailing in Oxford is not what it once was?

In that context one has to wonder who is going to populate the new cathedral of consumption when it is finally completed, and for those that do take up residence, what kind of trading environment will they find?  With 40% of retail leases across the country coming up for renewal at the end of this year, it really does beg the question about how much space will be required when the Westgate centre is completed in 2017.  Moreover what will the rest of the city look like once all the remaining viable stores have de-camped into the waiting warmth of a lovely new mall?

With council plans to push up the cost of parking YET AGAIN and the negative impact of roadworks, and the city centre looking like a building site, it’s likely most consumers will continue to go elsewhere to shop, surrounded as we are by much more attractive and easily reached locations around the city and the county.  And once again, experience tells me that once people find better alternatives, they’re unlikely to return, other than for a quick nose around the new development.

A committee composed of councillors with absolutely no idea how businesses in Oxford operate, setting out to ‘examine’ how to deal with these issues now, is tantamount to closing the door after the horse has bolted, lived out it’s natural life and ended up in a dog food tin.  This project as has been in the planning stages for so many years it’s truly staggering that the implications are only being discussed now.

Oxford is of course known as the city of ‘dreaming spires’.  It seems that in terms of strategic planning, many of our councillors have also been asleep on the job.