Mark Robinson

Posted on 05 August 2020

“In a global view people look at the UK and think sort yourselves out.  We’ve got plenty of places we can invest at the moment and you’re not top of our list despite all the great things about time zone, language, strong rule of law etcetera, etcetera. But if fundamentally you can’t tell me whether a place is a success or not how can I invest it in it?”

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influences in the world of real estate and the built environment.  We’re still recording the podcasts digitally so please bear with us if the sound quality isn’t up to our usual studio standard. 

Today I’m delighted to welcome Mark Robinson.  With a career in retail property spanning nearly thirty years Mark is a high profile thought leader in the field of place making and the challenges and opportunities that our two centres and retail places face.  This was recognised in his recent appointment to chair the Government’s High Street taskforce following his role as President of Revo in 2019.  Mark co-founded leading town centre invested developer Ellandi in 2008 which has gained notable industry awards for entrepreneurish, diversity and being a great place to work.  So now we’re going to hear from Mark Robinson on the future of retail on the High Street and whether he remains a retail apocalypse denier. 

Mark welcome to the digital studio.  You have had an interesting lockdown it has to be said so while the rest of us worrying about Covid you went your usual very individualistic way and were hospitalised with a brain haemorrhage and I’m delighted to hear that you’ve made an amazing recovery.

Mark Robinson

Yeah its been very strange I mean I do feel some guilt about inflicting crisis upon my family in a time of world crisis but it has been an interesting experience to go through a life-changing matter and it’s probably led to a lot of self-reflection for good and bad but I think what has been quite important to me is my recovery I think has been based on the investment that I made in my health beforehand so I was in hospital the same weekend as Boris and I had people tweeting and texting me if we were in the same ICU and we weren’t, he was in St Thomas’s, I was in the excellent St George’s which is a brain hospital which is what I needed but he is absolutely correct the fitter you go into hospital for whatever crisis you have the more likely the outcome will be on the up side when you come out so you know I look at the training I did before I was in as an investment and I think people need to think of it that way.

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think’s that really good advice.  So you’re the Co-Founder and Property Director of Ellandi and you started I think in 2008 at the highlight of the financial crisis and you were buying distressed assets at that time so there must be some real parallels with the crisis that we’re currently going through.

Mark Robinson

Absolutely I mean we were very much forged in a crisis so this sort of current disaster seems to sort of feed well into our DNA and the strange thing is though you know we have a relatively benign economic environment for most of our careers and yeah there is talk that maybe you do have major economic dislocations every eighteen years and I thought I was sort of weirdly privileged to have lived through one crisis I could tell the grandkids about you know what grandad did in 2010 to build his business and make it more better and I certainly did not want to welcome a second crisis within twelve years so that’s something we’re all having to up our game about.

Susan Freeman

Yes, I think that’s for sure and you are known as being a retailer apocalypse denier and I wondered whether that was even pre-Covid, so I wondered whether that description still stands?

Mark Robinson

I hate the idea of apocalypse because in people’s mind they spring to this idea of a complete wipe-out and I just cannot envisage a future where our town centres and High Streets aren’t based around commerce.  Now that commerce might not be purely retail in the way we have in the past and hopefully not thankfully so I’ve always tried to fight against this idea that we are in a post physical retail world where everything is going to go onto the internet because I just don’t see that in my lived experience, I don’t see it how my family behave and I don’t see it societally either but it is fair to say the crisis that we currently face has been made exponentially worse by Covid but what it has actually done and its been said a lot, and its been said a lot on Twitter is you known its made 2030 happen in 2020 and that sort of shock to the system is something that is really quite hard to process and its difficult for Government and they are taking steps and the taskforce is part of that and its difficult for individual businesses who are really struggling.  I mean at Ellandi we’d bought into the idea that massive change was needed so we’d been on the change agenda so I think irrespective of Morgan and my past setting up the business in 2008 we’ve always had this promoting change mindset which has put us in good stead for what’s going on at the moment.

Susan Freeman

Yeah so, the Ellandi portfolio is pretty diverse isn’t it?  You’ve got shopping centres all over the UK I think twenty-nine?  And you’re known you know for being a passionate advocate of the role of community and changing our town centres and I just wondered why the role of community has actually been overlooked its as if we’ve been so focused on retail and having the same retail in every shopping centre and High Street but what happened to the role of community and is that going to help us get out of this situation? 

Mark Robinson

I was debating this the other day one of the problems the way that our entire industry is set up is it is based on precedent in so many ways so that speaks to value.  You pay your rent based upon what the person next door deemed to pay for their purposes at the time that’s no longer fit for purpose.  We’ve built an entire post war industry based around precedent i.e. this has worked over here, lets build it over there with brass knobs on and even more people will come.  So, this whole built it and they will come culture is no longer valid. To make things work going forward we really need to get to the purposeful core of place consumers are now completely empowered to be purposeful because of these super computers in their hands, they can decide what they want, where they want it and how much they want to pay for it and you have to have a compelling reason for them to come to you whether it’s a shop or a place to do it in your place so it’s about restating the purpose of a place to make it engaging with your consumer and at the heart of a lot of that and its certainly the narrative we’re picking up on all the expert advisers we have at the taskforce is community, it’s a sense of place yet things are more commute on the internet perhaps for some things so what makes a place special well it’s that purpose and it’s the purpose it has for the community so the whole eco system is tied in together if that makes sense?

Susan Freeman

No it makes a lot of sense and I mean you have to wonder you know going through some of the, you know, High Streets actually what that sense of purpose was its obviously you know in many cases long been forgotten and I noticed on your website you say that you have 95% occupancy in your shopping centres is that still the case?

Mark Robinson

Well I don’t think we’ve updated our website since March so I think that might be stretching it somewhat but one of the, the way that we’ve always explained what we felt was going on in the world of retail property, solely retail property was around polarisation in that you know you have these purposeful consumers that I have just talked about and the purpose they see in place is at two ends of the spectrum.  One is to go to a place where they’re going to be entertained and excited and you know that might look like a Westfield for example and at the other end of the spectrum they want something which is hyper local, hyper convenient and perhaps based around value but not exclusively that really speaks to them so that’s what polarisation meant to us and the corroboree of polarisation is obviously if you’re not at one of those extremes it’s the stuff in the middle that’s going to get crushed or as Steven Dennis on Twitter called it the other day, I always called it the squeeze middle he said the unexceptional middle which I think is absolutely spot on.  It’s the places that didn’t really have a reason to exist, why, if you can’t describe why you should come to a place, you’re starting off with a bit of a problem there.  So that’s what places need to do and again it’s a big focus on the taskforce is really helping places, build that capacity and build the expertise so they can put in place a proper vision of what they want their town to be based on a true purpose that speaks to their community. 

Susan Freeman

It’s interesting we’ll come to the taskforce at the moment and we can talk about your new role there, but I mean talking about the polarisation and at one end you know the entertainment and you know excitement. Intu has gone into administration recently and as far as I can see you know the Intu shopping centres actually seem to have done pretty well and they’ve put these things in place but I mean was the administration of Intu inevitable just because of the way things have gone with Covid on top of it? 

Mark Robinson

Ooh that’s a tough question we are quite involved in some advisory work with some of the lenders, so I’ll need to be relatively concise on what I say.  I think its fair to say their portfolio is far more diverse than people imagine you know in range of quality of the assets so there is definitely different challenges and different opportunities with different assets but even at the major, major regional asset scale I think there is a great opportunity to return those assets to feeling like they belong of their place.  You know Metrocentre, I’m from the North East you know people feel very proud of the fact that that is a proper classed destination and I think whoever takes that over is going to win if they don’t make it it becomes no longer part of this collection of great shopping centres across the UK it becomes special to the people of the North East.  Likewise with Trafford, likewise with Merryhill so they are relatively winning but one of the big challenges we do have with all retail property but I actually think specifically with some of the destinations is retailers will want to be there because of their high footfall, they will want to be there because of the high visibility, the brand value of being in that place but I don’t think even occupiers know what they want to pay for that privilege at the moment.  If its not just about turnover which it isn’t in these destinations how do you capture the externality on the upside of what the value of that place is and that’s a really interesting intellectual challenge for the industry which I know there are initiatives inching towards it but it will be interesting to see how that plays out. 

Susan Freeman

Yes its complicated and there is so much to think about when you try and build in you know is this retail unit effectively you know showcase, how do you deal with online sales but I think we’re just going to have to grasp that one and deal with it.

Mark Robinson

The only thing for fun is it is not worth whatever the person next door decided to pay which is on the basis of every valuation a retail property that happens, which has happened since the 1954 Act which is utterly not fit for purpose.

Susan Freeman

Okay so that’s something else we’re going to have to, we’re going to have to look at.  You’ve mentioned the taskforce and congratulations on becoming Chairman of the new Government High Street taskforce which is as far as I can see is an alliance of place making experts that’s going to help communities and local Governments transform their High Streets and it will be really interesting to hear you know from you how you think its going to work and what you hope to achieve?

Mark Robinson

Well as you well know there’s been a number of taskforces, initiatives and reports written and the reason I really wanted to be involved in this, this is a quantum scale difference of intervention by Government.  Mary Porter’s very high profile actually her report was pretty good, but everybody then focused on the Porter’s pilot and the TV show which really, I don’t think it was actually fair in a way.  Then you’ve had Sir John Timpson write his report and one of the recommendations of the … they had two main recommendations; one was you need to put some money at play and to be fair to the Government they did then set up the future High Street fund which is £750 million and they further augmented that with the towns fund of another £2,500 billion so this is proper money, this is unprecedented amounts of money going into left behind places or places in need of help in a way that have never happened before so that gets one’s attention.  But one of his other important recommendations was a permanent taskforce to implement change that is needed and advise Government on High Street issues.  So a taskforce was set up quite quickly after his report and its been run by the Institute of Place Management out of Manchester Metropolitan University and they’ve been well funded you know it is £2 million a year to put in place strategies to help place rebuild because of the crisis on the High Street and there’s four main roles that the task force is delivering on in respect of that - one is building expertise; the other is building local capacity we have experts that have been approved which we can literally parachute in to collaborate and work with Local Authorities to help them get to the right place quicker.  The third place is promoting collaboration on a local and national level, there’s a lot of good stuff going on we need to harness it and get it going in the right direction and the fourth is the dissemination of information best practice or celebrating success as I like to put it so that’s what the taskforce does and the taskforce was set up and was doing that and then obviously this Covid thing appeared about six months into the taskforce being in place and they’ve pivoted really quite impressively and very successfully in becoming an adviser to Government around Covid impact as well as disseminating best practice to place about how to best cope with Covid so fair credit to the Executives and all the collaborators and taskforce members who had been there delivering on this I think they’ve done a great job.  The board was put in place post that and really the role of the board is twofold; one and the primary goal is to ensure that the taskforce is delivering on those four goals which we will do.  Secondly, we also want to help build the reputation of the task force but also, we have been given remit by Government, by MHCLG, by Simon Clark the Minister to be the voice for the High Street.  We are there to articulate what we think is going on on the High Street and how we can help advise the Government on making matters better and that’s really exciting. We’ve got an excellent board, a really diverse board on every level especially in terms of people with different interests and achieving what we all want which is improvement of place but from very different backgrounds so everybody on the board wants to deliver on the promise of the taskforce but we also want to have influence and the fact that the taskforce and the board are going to be in place for four years and its not able one person writing a report really gives me a huge sense that we can really achieve something. Now unfortunately with Covid what we need to try and achieve needs to happen so much more quickly which is a bit of a challenge but the fact that it is funded, it is in place for four years its backing up the billions of pounds which are going into place you know this is a once in a generation opportunity to affect change that I just could not resist the temptation of getting involved in.

Susan Freeman

You know it does sound really exciting and much needed.

Mark Robinson

Quite a lot of work. 

Susan Freeman

Quite a lot of work because actually four years is a relatively short period and I was watching one of the High Street taskforce webinars with Bill Grimsey who has also written I think three reports now and he is calling for a sort of massive shift of power away from central Government to local communities to really empower them to reinvent the town centres but most Local Authorities don’t really have the skill sets that are necessary in order to do that because you know its difficult to basically go back to the drawing board and one of the things that Bill Grimsey said and which struck me is I thought he was quite grave because he said you know what his generation has built needs to be unpicked, sorry we got it wrong, and that is quite an admission but how are you going to empower you know these Local Authorities to really re-imagine you know what they’ve got and recapture what is the purpose, what actually, what do the community want and what’s going to bring people to the town centre I mean its…

Mark Robinson

I’ll come back to that in a second but when Bill said that I had a wry smile to myself because I said something really similar at the end of last year so last year I was President of Revo which as you know used to be British Council of Shopping Centres and as that year’s President we have a past Presidents lunch and it had property titans around the table I mean people you know I grew up admiring and wine was taken so I was even more chopsy than normal and in my address to them I thanked them for their contribution towards the industry for the last thirty years and thanked them for the fact that they’ve probably given me a job for the next fifteen years demolishing all the stuff they built and there is some truth to that to be fair and they took it relatively well.

Susan Freeman

How did that get down?

Mark Robinson

Everybody gets it, everybody round that table is hugely invested in place, loves place that’s why they did what they did for their industry and they realised that massive change is coming, and we need to get ahead of it.  But you’re absolutely right to mention the thing about capacity and that’s why its one of the major tenants within the deliverabilities of the taskforce.  There’s a huge ground swell of positivity around place and lots of very good things happening even within small towns there will be little individual groups trying to do stuff so that’s the collaboration we need to build together but I will happily travel the country and speak to anybody about place about the purpose for places and yeah you do speak, there are some Local Authorities who are outstanding and builds reports specifically.  Neil Schneider who was the CEO of, ex CEO of Stockton who I was heavily involved with you know what they’ve done in that town centre is incredibly brave and inspirational and it does appear to be paying off but at the same time I will have conversations with Local Authorities and in the nicest possible way they don’t know what they don’t know.  They don’t even know how to start on the journey and one thing the webinars very much try to do and I think have achieved is putting in place a framework from how to start from a low bar of understanding about what good looks like to getting to a place where we don’t know what the answer is but we know the questions to ask.

Susan Freeman

It seems to me that one of the big problems with town centres High Street which you don’t have with the shopping centre is fragmentation because you know the chances are you are going to have a sort of multitude of different owners who all have different, you know some will want to just get the highest rents so we’ll you know let whoever comes along and I mean one of the issues we have discussed round you know various sort of debates over the years is whether in some way business improvement districts can be sort of turbo charged so that one can deal with that because I don’t know otherwise how you may come up with a vision but how do you enforce it if you’ve got all sorts of different owners.

Mark Robinson

All the cool kids are now talking about community improvement districts so involving the wider society in being involved in place both in an operational and ownership capacity and certainly the work that Phil Prentice of the Scottish Towns Partnership is doing up north of the border is very much going in that direction and he is on the High Street taskforce board so that we can frankly rip off all his good ideas because he is a phenomenal operator.

Susan Freeman

Okay so we certainly do need some new tools I think in order to deal with some of those things.

Mark Robinson

Sorry I was just going to talk about the fragmentation issue.  It’s a huge, huge challenge.  It has been identified for a number of years now and you’ve got to bear in mind you’re going to have and I was up in Market Harborough meeting the team up there about some of the work they’re trying to do and yes you’ll have people with different opinions but you can cope with that that’s a matter of persuasion, that’s democracy but once of the massive issues they had even in a small town like Harborough is absentee landlords.  Propcos held offshore and there’s just no way you can get hold of the beneficial owner.  I had a very pleasant bottle of wine with the Property Director of one of the top five retail companies 21.33 a few weeks ago because that’s how we roll in lockdown and you know this is one of the main High Street names they’ve tried to engage with all of their landlords and they cant actually get hold of 20% of their landlords because they don’t even know who they are.  That is a massive structural failure when you’re trying to deliver on change.

Susan Freeman

Yeah it may be that Local Authorities are going to have to use their CPO powers that will be interesting.

Mark Robinson

I think you and I had a conversation with Brandon sometime ago about CPO and I was advocating for a relaxation and at the time I think it’s fair to say the Government’s response was quite negative because they don’t want to be seen to be removing private owner’s rights and I can understand that but we are in such a different environment now and frankly the government’s policy seems to be changing so radically I think it is something that should be revisited.  If you look at the success and I’m no great fan of massive inherited wealth but you have to look to what the Howard de Walden estate has been able to achieve on Marylebone High Street and that’s not an accident its because they can take a long term view and they own enough of that High Street to deliver long-term meaningful change. 

Susan Freeman

Yes I think it really is an exemplar of what you can do, I think people forget that before Andrew Ashingdon and Howard De Walden Estate came along and really reimagined Marylebone High Street it was just loads of you know empty shops and there was absolutely nothing going on there.  Now you mentioned your year as President of Revo, 2019, I mean that’s just last year it seems like a parallel universe.

Mark Robinson

It seems like a lifetime ago.

Susan Freeman

And you thought retail was going through a difficult time then I mean a year is a relatively short time what were you able to achieve as President?

Mark Robinson

Well and this is no disrespect to Ed Cook who is the previous CEO, he’s a very good friend of mine the best thing I achieved was getting Vivian King in place who is a remarkable operator, I’m sure you know her well and some of her achievements with the Crown Estate and real estate balance I think which she helped set up.  I mean she is a force of nature and she is absolutely what Revo as an organisation needs and humbly what the retail property industry needs as their advocate. To be fair Ed and I were building on our influence with Government and you know partly the engagement that I had with MHCLG as Revo President led me on a journey to wanting to run the taskforce because I met some brilliant, brilliant people in department who I know are passionate about place and I thought yes I can, you know these aren’t faceless civil servants these are real people who really care about place and I want to work with them and you know we are taking it to a certain level and again its because of the Covid crisis but you know Revo is now at the top table you know Revo has been in meetings with Boris Johnson about Covid response which I do not think is a position that Revo would have been in otherwise without Vivian’s laser like determination and focus and she is an amazing operator. 

Susan Freeman

That’s really, that’s really positive because you certainly need advocates like that right now.  So I mean retail clearly does have an issue because you don’t need to go to a shop to buy things and we’re also talking about the fact you actually now don’t need to go to an office to work but one of the issues for bricks and mortar retailers is online and I think online retail sales are up to 32% now from 18% in September and you know there’s a big question about how you create a level playing field I mean we were talking just before about Amazon Fresh you know now talking about you know free grocery deliveries and how the supermarkets can possibly complete with that but I mean is it time for an online sales tax you know the Government’s been talking about that for some while but you know sometime obviously Amazon Prime is brilliant and its been a lifesaver during lockdown but you know sometimes things come with just indecent haste.  You know you just about thought about ordering and the thing has arrived on your doorstep and you don’t have to pay extra for that convenience.  I mean I think something’s going to have to happen if you know retails got a chance of just keeping going and competing.

Mark Robinson

Absolutely I think you’ve got two or three massive, massive issues there.  One to maintain or gain market share, retailers have indulged consumers with unsustainable behaviours and they’re unsustainable from a financial point of view, they cannot make money doing what they are doing to fulfil their customer needs at the moment and they’re also unsustainable from an environmental point of view.  Actually we could argue for some time in fact Mark Price and I were arguing on Twitter about this the other day about how he was making the case that deliveries are so much more sustainable because it means that people aren’t going into their town centres in their cars now that’s a moot point but I’m not convinced despite his extreme knowledge of the retail market.  But I think we have a fundamental problem here and if you bear with my somewhat rambling description here the Amazon business model is anti-capitalist and I think that’s the line of attack we need to take in.  The capitalist model is good, I’m a capitalist, I’m slightly more to the left of some of the people in the industry but I am absolutely a capitalist and I’m an entrepreneur and I think people should work hard and make money and businesses should do well.  Now the compact that Amazon have reached is anti-capitalist because they’re not expected to make money, their shareholders are in this for capital appreciation so they’re not expected to make money which means they don’t pay dividends which means they don’t pay tax so everything gets rolled up and rolled up so in a way Amazon’s reinvestment in their platform to deliver improvements in market share is anti-competitive and is a form of tax avoidance and there’s no way if you put Amazon in a fight with a traditional retailer that not only has to invest in physical real estate but also has to pay shareholder dividends and has to pay tax on those dividends its an unfair fight that they cannot win and ultimately the only way that shareholders and Amazon should make money is when they reach a monopolistic position and that can’t be good for society so I know that’s a little bit of a sort of macro philosophical answer to that but I think you have to think of what the end game is here if we continue like this and its pretty ugly. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah and you know its an issue in the States as well you know same problem that you know High Streets are being decimated and okay you know we know that some retailers haven’t got it right with customer experience but I think this is a real problem and there’s also business rates when the Government has announced that the business rates review is going to be delayed for two years and apparently the treasury is considering eradicating business rates, replacing them with a Capital Values Tax but business rates are still there and again if you are a struggling you know retailer it must be a real issue.

Mark Robinson

Again one thing I don’t think you can fault this Government for is their willingness to try and be radical so whereas I think previously there might have been some scepticism about how fundamentally they might look at reforming things I think there’s more chance of something meaningful happening now and that’s not just because it needs to happen it’s because actually I think they are thinking pretty radically about a lot of things but you know you can talk about business rates in respect of equalising online and offline which I think needs to be looked at clearly but it feeds into Local Authority funding for example.  It is highly complex but they do seem to be deciding better to do something and get it 80% right than prevaricate and try and get it 95% right because you’ll never get it that right anyway so I think there is a real opportunity for industry to engage and if I am really honest and I say this having been involved and being in the room at the time I don’t think the industry has been particularly good at it I think industry bodies which we all know have sort of mistaken being strong in policy and writing reports from having real influence and not really understanding how to deliver change through having influence so I think they’re going to have to up their game and they’ve got to speak with one voice as well which has been difficult.  I think without wishing to bang the drum for Revo too much I think it can have a unique voice in making the case for retail property exceptionalism.  I mean rates probably needs reforming on a national level, but the crisis is exclusively in retail property so being very bold about that I think will give Revo a unique voice at that table.

Susan Freeman

Yeah one of the problems is obviously striking the right balance between you know the landlords and the occupiers so you know from a landlord viewpoint some of the Government interventions during the Covid crisis have made it very difficult for the landlords and if you start, you know if we’re talking about possibly a Capital Values Tax you know rather than rates that would put the burden on the landlords rather than the occupiers which is you know is going to be an interesting discussion because you know one’s got to try and reach a situation which is fair to both.

Mark Robinson

Well I think you know well there’s talk about Capital Value Tax or Land Value Tax and if we move to do that model I think there would undoubtedly have to be some sort of horrifically complicated transition but there again I think if dramatic change needs to happen, dramatic change needs to happen and if I am brutally honest now is as probably a good a time as any because I think everybody realises that everything is broken, investors have to realise that their properties are worth a lot less, banks who have lent on real estate have got to realise that the security isn’t what it was and without a new way forward we’re not going to see a recovery in value.  That’s where we are, if we continue as we are there will be no value recovery so we need something dramatic to change the dial to see this recovery in value, vitality, have healthy, successful, thriving property companies that actually have the capital to invest in making change happen because you know whilst I have celebrated the Government putting £3,6 billion into our town centres I mean that’s a fraction of what’s required and unless we can have an environment where the private sector pension funds I mean pension funds used to own our town centres.  They now wouldn’t touch them with a barge pole generally.  You know unless we can engender this place where it’s not only a safe place to invest where you can have some return its actually seen as a good place to invest you know there’s an ESG imperative around making a place better.  If we can get this positive environment going that’s the solution and to get there, we might have to slay a few chivolets. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah well if ever there was time for a reset I think it’s now you know everybody has had to re-think the way they live and the way they work and you know if we don’t do it now we’re never going to do it.

Mark Robinson

I know it has been said before and it is a Churchill quote, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

Susan Freeman

That is a good quote and I mean one of the things that, I mean quite can’t get my head round just looking at what’s happened you know during lockdown, less pollution, you know less cars and vans on the road, we’re you know able to pedestrianise some of the streets and get people eating outside but I’m not quite sure how its going to work when people start getting back to the office in earnest in September because there’s still obviously a concern about using public transport not everybody can cycle to work and this affects all town centres I was looking at some research this morning that showed quite clearly the retail units that have done well there was car access now you know we want to get away from reliance on the car but I’m not sure how we do it and still get people going to town centres.

Mark Robinson

I think we have to admit that we’re going to get some stuff wrong but we just need to do things you know so there’s been an awful lot of pedestrianisation thrown up and whenever you do pedestrianisation there’s going to be winners and losers and on balance is it a good thing that’s all we can do is try and reduce the harm for the most and create improvements for the majority full in the knowledge that its not going to work for everybody and that’s always going to be the case if you try and be radical.  I mean one, segwaying slightly I was on a webinar yesterday about this one of the things that does worry me about a lot of the change that we talk about within our town centres is incredibly middle class and its all well and good talking about pedestrianisation if you know you live in a nice London village like I do sort of in Battersea, sort of Wandsworth/Balham what have you but you know that can be very disenfranchising for people who have got mobility needs for example.  You know Artisan Bakers are not the answer to every town.  Food halls, you know bless Altrincham it’s a brilliant exemplar of what can work but that is not going to save every town centre and it worries me witless that a lot of malinvestment is going to be created in creating a food hall in places that they shouldn’t just exist so we need to … it gets back to this idea of what’s the purpose of place, what works for that community because its not going to be the same answer everywhere.

Susan Freeman

Yeah and we want to get away from the idea of the cloned High Street so that…

Mark Robinson

Exactly.

Susan Freeman

You know a place actually you know looks different.

Mark Robinson

And that’s again one of the things we’re trying to do with the taskforce is we’re not saying these are the sole answers, we will celebrate success.  We’ll say this has worked here, have a look at it but we’re not saying you have to do it its about putting in place the frameworks and I can be, any negative comment I made about Altrincham is full in the knowledge that Matt College who is the Head of Trafford Council which implemented all of that is on the taskforce board and when I spoke to him about it I said, “you know we’ve got to stop talking about food halls in Altrincham” he said, “thank god yes” because he’s passionate about the process he puts in place that resulted in that output whereas everybody just defaults to the outlook, the output sorry and it is actually the process that’s important that could leave places in completely different directions. 

Susan Freeman

That’s interesting so look a food market is not going to, is not going to work everywhere but what I liked about you know what I heard about Altrincham was that actually you know thought well people are working so we need to be open in the evenings which you know often things are set up and seemingly not with the customer in mind.  Now I wanted to ask you about data I know that at Ellandi you talk about data being at the heart of everything that you do and I just thought it would be interesting to hear from you you know what that means in terms of reviving town centres, how important is data and are people not looking at data at the moment?

Mark Robinson

This brings me back to the President point again so as a business, as a senior leadership team we realise that everything was a bit broken and that change was needed and if you can’t rely on what’s gone before how do you put a new strategy in place?  And you have to start by understanding place and the only way to do that with integrity is to start with the data so we decided to invest heavily in building data capacity through a research and analytics team which is being led by the amazing Issy Heath at our place who is one of the leading experts on retail data and retail property now and she’s now got a team of two working for her and you know we’re a small business of twenty seven I mean I don’t think many of the reets have got data teams.  Nevermind data teams of three so we are doing it with absolute integrity and to give you an example of why I think it really matters.  Master plans, so one of the things that we all have to think anew about our place and the typical response at local Government level is to do a master plan and there’s many ways of coming together to do a master plan and sometimes the better ones involve some genuine public consultation but it always involves architects getting their crayons out far too early.  Again its like thinking ‘oh this has worked here so you know we’ve got this town where can we fit in that food hall’ you know or ‘there’s a great bit of public art over here which has garnered 10 million visitors where can we stick it in this town?’  As opposed to thinking what is the place, what is it being used for now?  How do people use it?  What is the capacity?  What’s missing?  Don’t you just do an audit of shops do an audit of civic uses so building a data argument around what the place is now and what the potential is moving forward and its really interesting and that’s a narrative we’ve been banging the table on quite loudly whenever anybody gives us the opportunity and it is quite interesting town planners and even architects now are saying yes please give us the data because we’ve been flying blind and we’re getting it a bit wrong.  So, you give us some data and then we can build a much more robust design solution based upon data as opposed to based upon well we think this works because it worked somewhere else.  Does that make sense?

Susan Freeman

It does make sense and does that involve sort of really engaging with you know the local community and asking them what they want, what works, what doesn’t work for them?

Mark Robinson

Community consultation is another thing I think we need to do an awful lot better because what we tend to do is exclude two really important groups they tend to be the people that have no choice so have to use place because they are never asked for their opinion because they just use it anyway and they might be a low social economic demographic who aren’t as engaged in the civic realm and of course the other people are people who don’t use place because they’ve got a choice to go somewhere else so how do you capture the people who are not shopping in your town centre because they’re going somewhere else?  So you end up, it’s the opposite of polarisation the people with the opinions are the people in the middle which often is a good thing but quite often it is alienating at the people who have no choice or people who have got too much choice and true public consultation I think needs to embrace them all.

Susan Freeman

So, do you actually approach the people that don’t you know come to the shopping centre or don’t you know and ask them what would need to happen to change that?

Mark Robinson

Well ideally yes I mean we’ve been very strong Ellandi as a business on actually doing incept surveys so I think we’re in our fifth year now of doing the UK’s probably most wide ranging incept survey and an incept survey does what it says on the tin you stop five hundred people within a town centre over a period of time and ask them thirty five questions and because we’ve been doing it in thirty odd shopping centres all the way from Aberdeen to St Austell for the last five years we’ve got this amazing data set which is now really quite robust in how people are using place but its very difficult to sort of park somebody with a clipboard or an iPad at your competitor’s shopping centre or your competitive town centre to ask them why they’re not going to the place we think they should be going but I think through better use of social media you can start capturing that sort of thing but we know what the problem is I don’t think we’ve nailed the solution but its something we’re thinking quite long and hard about at the moment.

Susan Freeman

And I just wondered how footfall you know is holding up in the Ellandi shopping centres since you know they are, they tend to be regional and you know we’re hearing a lot about you know for instance London’s West End where footfall is down about 70% you know obviously because there are no tourists and office workers have not come back in any great numbers and it seems that local shopping centres are probably faring better at the moment?

Mark Robinson

They seem to be based on our data at Ellandi and also data coming through with the high street taskforce based upon footfall in towns across the UK, I mean people are keeping it local as it were which has to be a good thing and crikey I think our smaller towns and places do need a little bit of equalisation even if it does mean some pain for some of our world class city destinations.  I don’t think anybody would hold it against you know a bit of equalisation happening for some of the left behind places if I am honest but it is such an enormous agenda I mean obviously if you are going to be working from home two days a week or three days a week that’s two days a week/three days a week you’re not going to be going to Pret that’s a big issue for them.  You’re more likely to have your haircut locally I would suggest and so I think there is a real opportunity to you know capture that spend more locally within communities and money that’s spent within communities tends to stay in communities and that has to be a good thing. 

Susan Freeman

I had my haircut very locally last week somebody came over and cut it in the garage so that was a first.

Mark Robinson

Very good.

Susan Freeman

That was a first.

Mark Robinson

Can I go back to data because there’s something else I wanted to make which I think is really, really important for the industry whether its footfall or turnover the only way we’re going to reach solutions between owners and occupiers is a more transparent sharing of data because none of us knows what good looks like and some of that is because we’re just working it out for ourselves but the only way we’re going to get to an answer more quickly if we can start sharing data.  Now one of the reasons we invested very heavily in data and analytics at Ellandi was to build their capacity to be able to engage with our occupiers on an equal basis.  You know one of our analysts used to be a Business Analyst at H&M so I can with confidence stick him in front of anybody at any retailer and he can talk to them in their language and really get under the skin of what is working for them and what’s not working for them and its that deep level of understanding of our sole customers and they are our sole customers at the end of the day is the only way we’re going to put in place a better solution for the challenges we have at the moment.

Susan Freeman

And actually that sharing of data and having the confidence to share data is I think going to be very important as you know we increase the use of turnover rents because you’ve just got to know what’s going on and its interesting actually because this, you know the need to share data is also becoming increasingly important with office buildings, all the air quality and everything that goes with working in an office building.

Mark Robinson

Well its really simple and if we don’t sort this out we’re not going to get the private investment that is desperately needed you know I was on a call three weeks ago with the European leader, a major property private equity fund who loved the idea of investing in the UK they see a market dislocation in retail which they would love to be part of and this business has just raised £2.6 billion, they’ve got tens of billions under management and he was like Mark with all due respect we’re not putting a penny into the UK until you can tell me how tenants trade in the locations you want me to invest in and I didn’t have an answer for that, oh seems sensible to me.

Susan Freeman

It makes a lot of sense doesn’t it?

Mark Robinson

And especially when in other jurisdictions it is readily available they just you know on a global view people look at the UK and think sort yourselves out we’ve got plenty of places we can invest in at the moment and you’re not top of our list despite all the great things about time zone, language, strong rule of law etcetera, etcetera but if fundamentally you cant tell me whether a place is a success or not how can I invest in it?

Susan Freeman

I think they’re absolutely right aren’t they?  So we’ve been talking about you know the need for quite fundamental change at all levels not just retail you know places, town centres and the property sector is not renowned for being good at change do you think that the property sector and the property companies can adapt sufficiently to really fundamentally changed the way they are operate places operate.

Mark Robinson

I think the industry we beat ourselves up quite badly and quite rightly in many ways about being resistant to change and there is a lot of really good stuff happening and we need to celebrate the change that is happening and we need to accelerate it clearly.  You know I took part in the excellent Pathways to Property event at Reading University last week and you know I had to tell the tale of when I started at Oxford Poly I was only, there was two of us out of sixty two who went to a state school now the industry has got a lot of work to do on diversity but it has changed a lot in twenty seven/twenty eight years since I was Oxford Poly sort of thing.  So, we need to celebrate that success but put our foot down to the accelerator, so change is happening, and change makes businesses better as well to cope with the challenges.  Again, it’s back to this President word I don’t think I have ever used it quite as much, but you need that diversity of thought, that cognitive diversity to reach the right answer.  For far too long in retail property decisions were made by middle class/middle aged white blokes who never shopped I mean it’s bonkers.  You know how can you understand your consumer unless you are of that place, of that consumer and you actually have people who actually use places and there’s many people in this industry who are passionate about place despite not actually ever really being a consumer of it if that makes sense and I think with the crisis, the financial crisis which has is being brought upon the sector we are going to have the issues if you are not up for change, if you are not going to embrace change its going to be quite simple you’re going to go bankrupt and these places are going to still exist so a new more agile inclusive diverse operator will come in and make a success of it that’s going back to this capitalism point that’s how capitalism is supposed to work and we’re going to get sort of shunt creative destruction on steroids going through the industry in the next three or four years. 

Susan Freeman

Well I think that’s probably a good place to end Mark I mean it’s really …

Mark Robinson

Oh, I hate ending on a downer you can’t end there.

Susan Freeman

It wasn’t a down that’s was definitely, I think, I think it’s positive I mean you know the role that you’re in with the High Street taskforce you know puts you in a position to actually be involved with all this change which is exciting as you said you know it would be a shame to waste the crisis I think it is you know, ultimately positive. 

Mark Robinson

Yeah if you’ve got to change mindset you don’t mind getting a few things wrong it’s a very exciting five/ten/fifteen years for the industry for sure.

Susan Freeman

Well that’s positive and perhaps we should have another conversation in about a year’s time and see how it’s going.

Mark Robinson

More than happily.

Susan Freeman

Okay, thanks very much. 

Mark Robinson

Take care.

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much to Mark Robinson for sharing his thoughts on the change needed to recreate our High Streets and town centres and as Chair of the new High Streets taskforce he is very well positioned to drive through that change.  So that’s it for now I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation. 

Please all stay safe and join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon.  The PropertyShe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes. The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use.  Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter at PropertyShe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, proptech and the built environment. 

With a career in retail property spanning nearly 30 years Mark is a high profile thought leader in the field of placemaking and the challenges and opportunities that our town centres and retail places face. This was recognised in his recent appointment to chair of the governments High Street Task Force, following his role as President of Revo in 2019.

Mark co-founded leading town centre investor/developer Ellandi in 2008; which has been gained notable industry awards for entrepreneurism, diversity and being a great place to work!
 

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