Despite their flowery language, politicians are quite simple folk at heart and like most simple folk they think there is a simple solution to the most complex of problems. They’re right, of course. They’re just not very good at it.
One of the most depressing aspects of modern town centres is the growing number of empty shops.
A combination of out-of-town shopping centres, supermarket expansion, online shopping and car parking charges has been killing off local retailers. This makes people very sad, but not sad enough to turn their backs on convenience and low, low prices.
Anyway, a couple of years ago the government decided that it should be seen to be doing something about it to make people happier about their laziness and frugality and to appeal to the nostalgia vote. The question was what?
They didn’t want to pick on small. struggling businesses, like Tesco and Sainsburys, or compel local councils to give up their income from car parking fees or compromise the tax revenue from the likes of Amazon. (They do pay tax don’t they?)
What was needed was an ‘initiative’ and a tiny amount of money, all fronted by a ‘personality’ as a substitute for action while they came up with a better idea.
So David Cameron appointed the window dresser from Harvey Nichols to resurrect our high streets. Mary Portas, the so-called Queen of Shops, had a pot of money for local councils to scrabble for to become ‘Portas Pilots’.
My local council was one of those that made a successful bid for Mary’s £100k which might be a lot to the likes of you and me, but isn’t much in the high-rolling world of local government. (The council wrote off twice that much owed to them by debtors just last month)
So far the council has managed to spend £25,800 of the money on a projector for the Stockport Plaza theatre, a Christmas market and a town centre Dickens Day. Meanwhile the shop vacancy rate is 28% which is double the national average.
The point I’m trying to make is that governments aren’t very imaginative when faced with issues likes this. They have two basic strategies – carrot or stick. They either throw money at it, tax it or criminalise it, but little ever changes. It’s the classic trait of madness of repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
But every now and then, a little bit of sanity slips through the madness net and one such is the Behavioural Insights Team which has been quietly coming up with solutions by addressing the problem behind the problem.
To give one fine example, in 2011 decided that we could go a long way to reaching its target to reduce greenhouse gases by getting us all to improve the insulation in our homes. It adopted its traditional carrot strategy by hugely subsidising lagging and rolls of fibreglass and installation schemes to insulate our lofts.
It should have been a no-brainer for us, the public, and yet the take up rate was tiny and the policymakers were left scratching their heads thinking that we must be stupid.
It was the Behavioural Insights Team that identified the problems behind the problem. We thought it was a sensible idea, but it was the hassle of clearing our attics so the insulation could be fitted that was putting us off.
So they tested an idea. They got the installation companies to offer a service to clear lofts and dispose of the junk and the uptake went up threefold. And there was a fivefold increase when this service was also subsidised.
BIT is also known as the Nudge Unit because that is what it does – it uses psychology to nudge us towards better behaviour and I would love them to take a look at the way we are failing to use our high street shops. Should you want to read more, see this Telegraph article.