Retailing is one of the major economic sectors of United Kingdom, with retail sales of £221 billion, employing around 3 million people and operating over 300,000 shops. Within the sector there is a scale polarisation at both the business and the store level. The leading retailers are huge, multinational businesses which dominate the sector. They operate a range of stores from major hypermarkets and supercentres through to small convenience stores. Retailing is also significant it its social dimension as well. Whilst economically retailing bridges production and consumption, in social terms it effects most of the population every day. It is the rare person who does not go shopping, or indeed has not worked in retailing or been involved in it in some way. For some, retailers offer their major social intercourse of the day or week and act as a social network, setting or centre. The quality of UK retailing and its locations thus has both an economic and a social bearing on the perceptions of the country.
1.1 Political Structure and Trends
The activities of retailers and thus shoppers are affected by the political structure and trends in a number of ways. It would be wrong, however, to see this as a direct relationship derived through a body of legislation specifically targeted at retailing or shopping. Instead, trends in retailing and shopping are more dependent on a number of national debates and initiatives that have been developed recently by various levels in the political process. The main direct effect that politicians have on retailing and shopping is through their exercise of power over location through the levers of the land-use planning system. Whilst land-use planning is a local authority activity, national government can intervene to provide directions and guidance on the assessment of development opportunities and proposals. Whilst land-use planning towards retailing in the 1980s allowed decentralised activity, since the early 1990s there has been a growing consensus on the tightening of restrictions on off-centre and green field development. Thus it has become much harder to obtain planning permission for developments away from existing town centres and newer forms of retailing such as factory outlet centres and regional shopping centres have become harder to accommodate. This consensus has emerged through a general concern with the health of town centres and a desire to see town centres as vital and viable parts of the urban structure, fulfilling traditional nodal activities, including providing a focus for shopping. Whilst land-use planning affects the location of retailing, other instruments of government can affect the operations of the business, although as we note there is no overall retail trading legislation. Instead, shoppers are affected by a battery of public policy which attempts variously to regulate competition, safeguard consumer interests and to regulate trading conditions. Recent changes in this arena have seen an easing of restrictions on trading hours for example but a strengthening of powers over retail selling and employment practices. Concerns over public health have led to tighter regulation on food stores. In essence the approach could be summed up as ensuring that retailers do their jobs properly and that there is as much a level playing field as possible. Again there is no reason to suspect that this will change, though the scale of the legislation will change as globalisation continues in this market. Big retailers will be created on a pan-European level and will be subjected to standard operating conditions across for example Europe, which safeguard consumer interests. The European dimension obviously has another political aspect as well, most notably in terms of the Euro. Whilst decisions about the Euro are beyond this report, retailers as a key service sector, will have to deal with its introduction (or not). For some this is...