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Healthy High Streets – can we trust the measurers?

Healthy High Streets – can we trust the measurers?

🕔22.Nov 2018

To the 45th President of the United States, and quite possibly the 42nd, the first image conjured up by the initialism HDH could well be High Dollar Hooker. To me, living my exceptionally sheltered life, it conjured up nothing – until relatively recently when I came across Harper Dennis Hobbs, the commercial property consultants, writes Chris Game.

I’m not actually that into property development, but I do follow their regular HDH Town Centre Vitality Index. Launched in 2014, it was what you might have guessed: a 500-location guide for property agents to the most up- and down-market retail centres, promoted as a ‘Where best to go shopping’ list – and also where to avoid, this latter being what first grabbed my attention.

The top spots were predictable – eight of the top 10 in London, punctuated only by Cambridge and Bath. Manchester (27) and Wilmslow (30) were significantly ahead of Solihull (45) and Birmingham (55); Merry Hill (77) ahead of Sutton Coldfield (115) and Worcester (128).  And in 500th place, just failing to overtake Llanelli and Morecambe, was an understandably miffed Dudley. It’s true what they say about not all publicity.

The Vitality Index has now expanded to 1,000 ‘retail centres’ across Britain – unfortunately for Cotteridge and Selly Oak, with their not-very-much-Vitality ranks of 974 and 992 respectively – ranks, moreover, that are tough to argue with when the HDH guys calculate your ‘Retail Spend Potential’ down to the last pound (Birmingham: £3,738,666,154, if you’re interested).

Birmingham’s most recent Vitality Rank was an OK-ish 34, but the principal measures of each town centre’s ‘retail health’ have nothing directly to do with size or even spend potential. Rather, they are its balance of ‘up-market’, ‘value-led’, and ‘undesirable’ shops plus vacancy rates. In short, never mind the size, judge the quality – and exercise your prejudices.

HDH’s current ‘undesirables’, just to check, are betting shops, pawnbrokers, pay-day loan and E-cigarette shops and Bingo halls – but no longer charity shops, now promoted to ‘retail’.

Sorry, that may have sounded cynical.  I should have been acknowledging at least HDH’s recognition that there’s more to a communally healthy and attractive town centre than posh shops making big bucks – and also its genuine attempt to categorise and measure that communal health.

But this is where the professionals come in, which here means the prestigious Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). Posher now than when founded in the 1870s as the Sanitary Institute and with the Queen as Patron, when the RSPH looks at high streets and town centres, measuring Public Health is its core concern, not an add-on.

Which is why, I’d suggest, its most recent report on Nationwide Health on the High Street and accompanying shopping area league table deservedly received more media attention than generally do those from the commercial property people.

It made the Birmingham Mail and its sister website for a start, with the headline: “Two Black Country high streets named among the most unhealthy in UK” – the shopping areas in question being Walsall (2nd ‘unhealthiest’ out of 70) and Wolverhampton (8th), with Stoke-on-Trent (4th) and Coventry (12th) also at distinctly the wrong end of this league table.

Whatever the negative features measured, it doesn’t sound good, and the publicity for the named towns is obviously lousy.  Yet – and here’s my beef – neither the Mail nor most other media reports felt it necessary to explain the criteria deemed to constitute high street unhealthiness or noted that this was a follow-up of an earlier and directly comparable 2015 study.

On the other hand, neither Birmingham report even mentioned the respectable ranking of their own city (see below), so perhaps I’m just expecting too much.

Life’s short, I know – and so is news space.  But, notwithstanding the rocketing growth in retail e-commerce sales, and ‘high streets’ being but one part of our urban environment, the healthiness or otherwise of these main shopping areas is still important stuff, as indeed our elected councils certainly recognise.

See, for example, last week’s decision by Christchurch Borough Council in Dorset to leave a vacated shoe store empty, rather than approve a 15th coffee shop within a 500-metre stretch of its High Street. And Birmingham’s own Community Cohesion policy of restricting the numbers of businesses such as betting shops, takeaways and off-licences in certain deprived neighbourhoods.

The RSPH’s High Street Health studies are essentially about providing public decision-makers like councils with quantitative and ranked data on the various types of businesses found in the main retail areas of the UK’s 70 largest towns and cities (outside London) – to enable them to make more informed health-promoting or harm-limiting policy choices.

For 16 types of high street businesses an overall ‘Richter scale score’ is calculated, based on that business’s potential impact on four areas of personal health, each of which is scored from +2 to -2: encouraging healthy lifestyle choices, promoting social interaction (like Bingo halls, presumably?), allowing greater access to health care services and advice, and promoting mental wellbeing.

As shown in the table, overall ‘Richter scale scores’ range from leisure centres (7), health services (6), pharmacies and health clubs (5s) to off-licences, fast food outlets, bookmakers (-2s) and high cost credit outlets (-4).

Back, then, to the National League Table, which the RSPH, following the ‘bad news gets the bigger headlines’ precept, insists on presenting in order of the UNhealthiest high streets.  ‘Top’ this year, then, is Grimsby, followed by Walsall, Blackpool, Stoke and Sunderland, with the healthiest being Edinburgh, Canterbury, Taunton, Shrewsbury and Cheltenham.

Birmingham, unnoted by the Mail, is 47th unhealthiest – or, 24th healthiest, if it were included in an extension of my inverse table. Not quite up (or down) there with the Eastbournes, Baths and Leamington Spas, but healthier than most big cities and many historic towns and 15 places higher than three years ago.

That’s almost a fifth of the table, which seemed, for something as serious, and apparently as seriously measured, as high street health, quite a change – but not compared with some others travelling in the opposite direction. Doncaster, 18th healthiest in 2015 is now 14th unhealthiest; Bolton, previously 24th healthiest, now 7th unhealthiest; Stockport, from 23rd healthiest to 11th unhealthiest.

Then there’s Walsall, with an experience to rival Wolverhampton Wanderers’ early-1980s triple relegations: 13th healthiest in 2015 to 2nd unhealthiest, for reasons that in the report go completely unexplained, apart from passing notes about the town’s relatively large numbers of empty shops and high cost credit outlets.

I conclude, therefore, with a respectful message to the Queen and her Royal Society. If your methodology, apparently reasonable and rigorous, nevertheless produces such wildly fluctuating results over a three-year period, should you not consider the grief you’re causing by focusing quite so much attention on your ‘Unhealthiest High Street in the UK’ league table?

Main pic: Health on the High Street campaign, RSPH.

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