Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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15 minutes to change the world: people-friendly neighbourhoods for a post-lockdown recovery

Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

What kinds of cities do we want to live in? It’s a question that has taken on increased urgency in the past year. But even before the global pandemic, there was growing concern about how to address the challenges facing the world’s cities, especially the threat of climate change.

Tackling traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, improving sustainable mobility and ensuring easy access to green space and essential services are all significant factors that can advance the quality of life in our urban areas. The lockdowns and other restrictions imposed by governments to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have thrown these issues into sharper focus.

An alternative vision

There is now a growing consensus that a new road map is needed for the development of liveable cities. This means changing lifestyles so that sociability, sustainability and wellbeing are prioritised – in short, the common good should drive decisions about urban planning.

One of the ideas for promoting this approach is the 15 minute neighbourhood, in which home, education, work, healthcare and other essential services are all within a 15 minute reach by walking or cycling. This is the vision of Professor Carlos Moreno, scientific director of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

In a recent webinar, organised by Solace and Catapult Connected Places, Professor Moreno outlined his concept, where the six functions for city life –  living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying – are all within easy reach, making neighbourhoods not just convenient places to stay, but satisfying places to live.

The concept of the 15-minute neighbourhood contradicts urban planning ideas that have predominated for more than a century, where residential areas have been separated from business, retail, industry and entertainment. Professor Moreno stressed that the new approach requires careful planning and implementation, political will and financial support from local and national authorities, and – essentially – the engagement of citizens.

A rapid, radical transformation

The first wave of lockdowns in 2020 showed that it is possible for radical change in our cities to happen far quicker than we might have ever imagined. In a matter of days, millions of people changed their lifestyles, with many working from home and travelling only locally for essential provisions. Soaring numbers of visitors to parks demonstrated the importance of local green spaces for physical and mental health. And in some UK cities, reduced levels of traffic led to improvements in air quality.

Of course, keeping large sections of the population confined to home has had many negative effects, and lockdowns are not part of the 15-minute neighbourhoods concept. Instead, the opportunity has arisen for an equitable and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 restrictions by rethinking the way cities work.

Paris: the 15-minute city

As special envoy for smart cities to the mayor of Paris, Carlos Moreno has been influential in the city’s decision to turn miles of roads in the French capital into cycle lanes. Reducing traffic is a key component of the concept, and can help cities achieve their targets for lowering the emissions that every year cause millions of premature deaths and countless more health impacts. In addition, Professor Moreno envisions greater use of remote working to reduce commuting times, as well as opening schools for community activities at weekends. With less time spent travelling to work, shops and healthcare services, people can enjoy a slower pace of life, devoting more time to families, friends and leisure, which in turn can bring multiple health and wellbeing benefits.

Paris’s advanced participatory budgeting scheme is a critical element for ensuring the 15-minute city concept thrives. 10% of the city’s spending is determined by participatory budgeting processes at neighbourhood level, meaning residents have the opportunity to participate in the design and selection of projects to be implemented in their own local area.

A growing interest in living locally

Paris is not alone in attempting to realise the 15 minute neighbourhood vision. Barcelona, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan and Portland are all exploring this approach, and it has also been endorsed by the C40 network of cities that are committed to addressing climate change.

In Melbourne, the city’s plan for growth over the next 35 years is guided by the principle of living locally. Its 20-minute neighbourhood plan was launched in 2018, and is being delivered in two stages to test the practicalities of delivering the concept across the city.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government has a strong focus on localism, and in a recent webinar, Scotland’s Chief Architect highlighted a 20-minute neighbourhood project in Edinburgh. The city council’s local place plan includes many elements that will be familiar to the proponents of 15 minute neighbourhoods, including new opportunities for cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

A lifeline or a threat?

Encouraging residents to work, shop and enjoy their leisure time locally will be music to the ears of smaller town centres. Even before the pandemic many local businesses were struggling to adjust to the changing habits of their customers. A resurgence of neighbourhood life could be the lifeline they need.

At the same time, a move towards more localised living could pose a threat to high streets in bigger cities. A recent paper in Covid Economics found evidence that higher levels of home-working has led to the relocation of economic activity from a few densely populated city centres to the suburbs. A further study by Centre for Cities found that in the UK’s 11 largest city centres, spending did not recover last summer when restrictions were eased after the first national lockdown.

Policymakers and planners will be watching these developments with great interest, as they have significant implications for economic activity in towns and cities. If the mass adoption of remote working hardens into a permanent feature, the cafes, restaurants, bars and shops that once depended on a steady stream of office workers could go out of business. Once-bustling city centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and London could turn into ghost towns. But if workers return to their offices in large numbers, the momentum for 15-minute neighbourhoods could be lost.

Final thoughts

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives, but it has also presented the opportunity to rebalance our thinking about how and where we want to live, learn, work and play. The 15-minute neighbourhood is part of that process. As Carlos Moreno has observed:

 “The pandemic has caused us to think about how to move differently, to consume differently, to live differently. We are discovering that by working differently we have more spare time, to have more time to be with our families or friends. We are discovering and appreciating our neighbourhoods much more. This will make us all more engaged inhabitants.”


More from The Knowledge Exchange blog on liveable cities:

Creating carbon conscious places

Last week, we reported on a series of webinars organised by Partners in Planning, a partnership of key organisations and sectors to support Scotland’s planners in delivering successful places.

This week, we’re looking at a further webinar in this series, which focused on the creation of low carbon places.

Planning for carbon conscious places

Steve Malone and Heather Claridge from Architecture & Design Scotland  (A&DS) opened the webinar by describing how A&DS have been exploring how the challenge of climate change can act as a driver towards the creation of low carbon places.

A&DS has been supporting the Scottish Government in implementing its climate change plan at a local level. This recognises that the planning system plays a key role in tackling climate change, and helping Scotland achieve its carbon emission targets.

Over the course of a year, A&DS worked with four local authorities to develop and deliver plans that prioritised climate action. As a result, a number of key principles of a carbon conscious place were identified.

  • A place-led approach
  • A place of small distances
  • A place designed for and with local people
  • A place with whole and circular systems
  • A place that supports sharing (of assets and services)

These principles are closely connected with ideas identified in earlier work by A&DS which explored how placemaking can tackle the challenges of an ageing population.

A&DS further developed this work to imagine the changes that might need to happen to support more carbon and caring conscious places by 2050. Earlier this year, its report Designing for a Changing Climate shared the learning from the year-long exploration into a whole place approach to the net-zero carbon challenge.

The report provided examples of each of the principles in action, and considered what Scotland would look like in 2050 if these principles were adopted for urban neighbourhoods, city centres, towns and rural areas.

Among the ideas highlighted were:

  • rooftops repurposed as usable areas with green space and room for urban growing
  • accessible zero emission public transport connecting city centres
  • local food growing and agroforestry helping support food self-sufficiency and security
  • natural flood defence schemes
  • peatland and woodland restoration to help a rural area absorb carbon and balance emissions

A&DS is now working with local authorities to apply these principles in real places. For example, in Clackmannanshire, the principles are being used to guide development of a mixed use housing site in Alva.

Planning as a circular economy enabler

Later in the webinar, Angela Burke and Ailie Callan from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) considered how the design of places that are conducive to the circular economy can help to tackle climate change.

Since the industrial revolution, the world’s economies have used a linear “take-make-consume-dispose” pattern of growth, a model which assumes that resources are abundant, available and cheaply disposable.

In contrast, a circular economy changes that mindset by designing-out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. These principles not only apply to resources such as consumer goods and product packaging, but also to land, water, buildings, infrastructure and energy.

Angela and Ailie went on to describe how planning can be an enabler of the circular economy. In Scotland, the planning system is set to change, with the publication of a new National Planning Framework (NPF4), which sets out where development and infrastructure is needed to support sustainable and inclusive growth.

NPF4 will address a number of high level outcomes, such as meeting the housing and wellbeing needs of the people of Scotland and meeting targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating circular economy principles early in the planning process will help to deliver a number of these outcomes, and NPF4 policy will provide the framework to ensure that these principles are integrated into new developments.

Ailie provided some examples of how circular economy principles can be embedded into planning:

  • Brownfield sites can be redeveloped instead of developing new sites and generating higher carbon emissions.
  • Distribution nodes on key transport corridors can enable electric vehicles to carry out last stage of delivery, minimising emissions and reducing traffic.
  • Developing re-use hubs at these distribution nodes can drive down waste.
  • Mobility hubs can ensure that everyone is well connected, not just for public transport, but also cycle paths, routes for mobility vehicles and charging points for electric vehicles.
  • Planning for shops and services locally (perhaps sharing the same premises) will reduce the need to travel outside the local area.

Angela and Ailie concluded with an invitation to anyone interested in partnering with SEPA on developing the circular economy in Scotland.

20 minute neighbourhoods

In the final section of the webinar, the Scottish Government’s Chief Architect, Ian Gilzean looked at 20 minute neighbourhoods. This is not a new concept, but has gained added significance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

20 minute neighbourhoods are all about living more locally by ensuring people have most of their daily needs met within a 20 minute walk from home. This in turn improves quality of life and reduces carbon emissions.

20 minute neighbourhoods bring together a range of characteristics, including transport, housing, schools, recreation, shopping and local employment. Recent limitations on travel due to the coronavirus have given many of us a lived experience of 20 minute neighbourhoods. But they have also brought into sharp focus the barriers preventing people from accessing work, shops and services close to where they live.

Ian went on to describe the implementation of the 20 minute neighbourhoods concept in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2017 Plan Melbourne has embraced this concept, feeding into the ambition of Melbourne to become a more liveable, connected, sustainable city. While some parts of Melbourne, such as the inner suburb of Fitzroy, already enjoy the facilities that make up a 20 minute neighbourhood, some of the outlying suburbs do not, and Plan Melbourne has been aiming to tackle some of the problems that prevent these places from delivering on the concept.

20 minute neighbourhoods appear to be an idea whose time has come. The pandemic has triggered a rise in remote working, and especially working from home. At the same time, cities have seen significant rises in cycling numbers. The economic impact of COVID-19 is still playing out, but it’s already clear that the recovery of small businesses and local services will be a priority, along with the need to reimagine urban centres.

Ian explained that these factors have all fed into the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, which has a strong focus on localism. This in turn has generated commitments and policies on town centre and community regeneration, local working hubs and active travel infrastructure, all underpinned by the new National Planning Framework.

Ian concluded with an example of a project in the Wester Hailes district of Edinburgh, where the city council has been developing a local place plan. The plan is making the most of existing assets, such as local canal and rail connections, as well as identifying new opportunities, such as cycle routes, food growing and green spaces.

Final thoughts

This webinar, along with others in the series, provided plenty of useful information about how Scotland is trying address climate change through the planning system, while also taking account of local communities’ needs.

Much more remains to be done if Scotland is to meet its net-zero ambitions, but it’s clear from the initiatives highlighted in these webinars that communities in partnership with local and national government and other stakeholders are working hard to create carbon conscious places.


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part two)

Dunfermline town centre

This is the second of a two-part blog on high streets and town centres.  In our last post, we highlighted some recent publications that have sought to address the challenges facing our high streets and town centres.

We looked at how towns could work to diversify their retail offer, placing greater focus upon developing experiences and services that are not easily replicated online – such as hair and beauty services, gyms, cinema, restaurants and nightlife.

We also highlighted the benefits of identifying a town centre’s unique selling point (USP), capitalising on the opportunities presented by the widespread growth of technology, and offering various forms of support to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

In this post, we consider how community involvement, good quality inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street can all provide ways to promote and support town centres to better meet the needs of local people in a changing retail and economic environment.

A community-focused high street

The town centre has long been considered the beating heart of a community.  As such, it makes sense that any attempt to revitalise them would have local people at its heart.

In Dunfermline, a pilot placemaking project has made use of innovative, interactive methods of engagement with young people to help plan and deliver town centre improvements.

Young people were asked to assess the quality of the town centre and to identify areas where improvements could be made, using tools such as the Place Standard and the Town Centre Toolkit.

There are lots of other great community-focused town centre initiatives. ‘Can Do Places’ aims to engage the local community in order to bring empty town centre properties back into use in various ways, for example, by providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs or supporting community arts and crafts.

Stalled Spaces Scotland is another noteworthy project – with a focus on greening derelict, under- or unused outdoor areas.  As well as improving the look and feel of a town centre, this scheme also aims to involve the local community and schools in the development and use of the spaces themselves.

A healthy and accessible high street

It goes without saying that if town centres are to attract both people and businesses then they must be both attractive and accessible – easily walkable, safe, and clean.  Indeed, amongst its findings, the High Street 2030 report highlights “calls for improved accessibility that is more environmentally-friendly, new public spaces or areas, centres that better serve older people”.

There has also been considerable discussion around how the design of town centres (and urban areas in general) impact upon various vulnerable groups.  We have blogged on this subject on various occasions, focusing in turn on the creation of places that address the needs of older people, people with dementia, autistic people and children.

There has also been widespread discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of shared space street design – which has been used by many places in the UK in attempt to revitalise their town centre spaces with varying levels of success.

As well as their role in the creation of inclusive, accessible spaces for all, there has been some focus upon the link between high streets and health.

Last year, Public Health England published guidance on the development of ‘healthy high streets’ – high streets that have a positive influence on the health of local people.  It focuses on elements such as air quality, enhanced walkability, the provision of good quality street design, street furniture, and communal spaces. It argues that the development of healthy high streets will support economic growth as well as community cohesion.

It also approaches the subject of diversity on the high street – recommending that there is an adequate number of healthy and affordable food outlets and limiting the number of alcohol, betting and payday loan outlets.

A high street to call home

Another way of bringing people back into the high street is to have them literally live there.

At the end of 2017, the Federation of Master Builders published a report ‘Homes on our high streets’, which argued that “revitalising our high streets through well planned and designed residential units could help rejuvenate smaller town centres”.

For example, Aldershot, as highlighted in the High Streets 2030 report, has been making use of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to promote residential development in the town centre and has undertaken property acquisition in the town centre, most recently acquiring the former Marks & Spencer  store.

Creating additional homes above shops or in former retail units not only helps to make use of vacant properties and regenerate town centres, but may also help to address housing shortages in many areas.

 Looking to the Future

So while 2019 may present high streets and town centres with some of their toughest challenges yet, there is a wealth of research, experiences and innovative ideas on which to draw.  The newly announced Future High Streets Fund will no doubt be of use to help put these ideas into practice.

And perhaps most importantly of all, local people remain enthusiastic about developing their town centres and wish to see them flourish. As the High Streets 2030 project noted:

The workshops and interactions provided real insight into the challenges faced by town centres. That they are worth fighting for was abundantly evident from the enthusiasm of those participating.”


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part one)

Wigtown town centre © Copyright Jim Barton

One thing is certain. The high street landscape has now irrevocably changed and there is no point clinging on to a sentimental vision of the past. We have to start planning for a bold new world.”

This was the conclusion of the Grimsey Review in 2013.  Five years on and the challenges facing the high street remain – now with the added economic complexities presented by Brexit.

Yet there remains optimism.  In the last year, a number of reviews have been published, illustrating how we can bring town centres and high streets back to life.

In summer last year, an update to the Grimsey Review was published. Its title – ‘It’s time to reshape our town centres’ – is something of a call to arms.

It sets out 25 recommendations to help support the high street to transform “into a complete community hub incorporating health, housing, arts, education, entertainment, leisure, business/office space, as well as some shops, while developing a unique selling proposition (USP)”.

In November, Lichfields also published a number of recommendations for high streets, based on their own research.  Their conclusions echo that of Grimsey: “Town centres and operators within them should embrace online, promote themselves better and develop their own unique selling point(s). They must broaden their offer and attract new anchors and other uses, which make them more family friendly, and improve the overall ‘experience’ for visitors”.  It also highlights a number of examples of innovative practice.

In addition to these, at the end of December, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the findings and recommendations of the High Streets Expert Panel, and a related report by the Institute of Place Management (IPM) – ‘High Streets 2030’.

The IPM report gathered the opinions of local people, including young people, about their town centre, what they would like to see developed, and the related challenges that they perceive.

Over the next two blog posts, we will look at some of these reports’ key recommendations, and highlight some innovative examples of good practice.

A diverse high street

A recent tweet by Fountain Bookstore in the U.S. highlighted the difficulties presented by ‘showrooming’ – where people visit high street stores to view items which they subsequently purchase online, often only for a marginally cheaper price.  The tweet went viral and sparked much debate.

However, realistically, online shopping is not going away – and in recognition of this, it has been widely recommended that high streets should diversify their offer, placing greater focus on services and experiences that cannot be replicated online – including food and drink uses, and leisure facilities, such as cinemas and gyms.

There does appear to be some evidence of this happening in practice – barbershops and beauty salons were ranked first and second respectively in terms of their number of net retail openings in 2017.  And Fountain Bookstore may be pleased to learn that there has been a small increase in the numbers of indepedent booksellers in towns across the UK.

A unique high street

Another key recommendation is for town centres to identify their own unique selling points (USPs).

Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a fantastic example of a town that has developed a USP in order to regenerate the community.  In 1998, Wigtown was designated Scotland’s national book town, and it has since become home to a wide range of book-related businesses, including both new and used booksellers, and an annual book festival that attracts many people to the town.

Other towns have sought to capitalise on their heritage to bring people back to the town centre – such as through the relatively new Heritage Action Zones programme and the £55 million fund announced in the 2018 budgetfor heritage-based regeneration, restoring historic high streets to boost retail and bring properties back into use as homes, offices and cultural venues”.

A digital high street

While the ubiquitous growth of technology has presented high streets with some of its key challenges – in the form of online shopping and showrooming – it also presents a number of opportunities.

As well as making the most of click and collect services, many town centres may also be able to capitalise on the ‘clicks to bricks’ phenomenon – where online retailers open physical stores in order to provide their customers with an enhanced experience, such as being able to trial goods before purchasing.

Grimsey 2 also outlines a number of other ways in which high streets can capitalise on technology – from providing free wifi and spaces for freelancers to work/come together, to becoming involved in digital marketing campaigns and gathering/using local datasets.

In Scotland, a number of ‘Digital Town’ pilots have been set up with a view to improving the high street’s digital infrastructure and skills, and supporting high streets to take advantage of these in order to boost tourism and local economies. Related guidance on the development of ‘Digital Towns’ has also been produced.

A well-supported high street

There is also a range of innovative supports for high streets – some more traditional, like business improvement districts, and others more unconventional – such as the growth of popup shops and other supports for local entrepreneurs.  We have discussed the many benefits of markets for town centres in a previous blog post. There have also been various awards and awareness-raising campaigns, such as Love Your Local Market, and the Great British High Street.

Another approach is to use the planning system.  One particularly innovative example of is that of the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ – Scotland’s first Simplifed Planning Zone (SPZ) focusing on town centres.  It was set up in 2015 and built on the success of Glasgow’s award-winning Hillington Park SPZ.

The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle. According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Renfrewshire Council have published a ‘how to’ guide detailing their experience.

To be continued…

These are but a few of the many innovative ideas and experiences that have helped town centres across the country.

In our next post, we will continue this theme and outline some additional ways that town centres can help to address their challenges and increase footfall – through community involvement, good quality, inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street.


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Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Science in the city: applying neuroscience to urban design

Cities have long been considered primarily in terms of their buildings and infrastructure.  However, in recent years, a more ‘human-centric’ view has been adopted – focusing on the people who inhabit the city, and how they perceive and respond to the city that surrounds them.

Research from a variety of disciplines agree that buildings and cities have a significant impact upon the people – from their physical and mental health, cognitive development, and wellbeing to their levels of productivity.

Neuroscience offers a new way to further explore this impact – and by doing so, help urban design professionals to create places that promote human health and wellbeing, whilst mitigating the negative impacts of the city environment as far as possible.

 

What is neuroscience?

But what exactly is neuroscience?  And how does it relate to urban design?

A recent report by FutureCatapult looks at how neuroscience can be used to improve the design of urban places, and thus increase human wellbeing and productivity.

It defines neuroscience as “a multidisciplinary branch of biology and is the scientific study of the brain and nervous system, including its interaction with the other parts of the body”.

There are various ‘scales’ or ‘levels’ of neuroscience – from cognitive psychology, right down to the study of individual cells in the brain.  Each level of neuroscience studies different aspects of how the brain functions, and thus offers different ways to explore and understand how humans perceive, respond to and are affected by their surrounding environments.  It has many applications in real life – and one such application is informing city strategy, design and policy.

 

Applying neuroscience research to urban design

Take mental health, for example.  It is a prime example of an area in which neuroscience can be used by city planners and policymakers to help improve human wellbeing.

As FutureCatapult point out in their report, cities have a greater prevalence of mental health problems than rural areas.

They note that several factors associated with cities have been found to contribute to mental health problems. These include certain toxins (produced by traffic, industrial parks), environmental stressors (noise and light pollution), climate conditions (urban heat islands) and social conditions (isolation).  Neuroscience offers a greater understanding how these factors impact on human health and wellbeing, thus creating an evidence base for the design of healthy places.

There are many other ways in which neuroscience research can inform city design.  For example, it has been found that:

  • poor air quality has serious detrimental effects on the natural developments of children’s brains
  • social isolation can accelerate cognitive decline in older people
  • an increase in noise decreases worker productivity
  • light influences brain function during specific cognitive tasks, especially those requiring sustained attention

Such findings can help inform the decisions made by city planners and policymakers, and help create cities that maximise human health, wellbeing and productivity.

Research into the brain’s ‘wayfinding’ processes – that is, how the brain processes visual information and makes sense of unfamiliar environments – is also of interest.  For example, how do people choose which paths to follow?  Are they influenced by street size, shape, colours, noise, or the number of cars? Such information could be used to inform the design of streets and places that are easier to navigate. This is of growing importance given the drive towards the design of inclusive and dementia-friendly places.

Relatedly, neuroscience offers a way to gain a deeper understanding of how non-neurotypical brains process and respond to different environments – for example, people with dementia or autism.  Understanding these different perspectives and responses is key to the creation of spaces that are truly inclusive.

 

Neuroscience in action

But how exactly does one go about examining how brain cells respond to an urban environment?

There are a variety of neuroscience tools that may be used to gather information about human’s experience of the city.

A key tool is mobile electroencephalography (EEG).  Previously, EEG involved equipment that could only be used in a laboratory.  However, technological advances have seen the development of mobile EEG ‘headsets’ that can be worn as research participants navigate different streets and environments of the city.

Mobile EEG enables researchers to measure brain function and activity, as well as the responses of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, skin conductivity, endocrinological levels).  This can be used to understand how individuals experience urban environments.

For example, mobile EEG has been used to help understand the urban experiences of people with visual impairments.  Other mobile EEG studies have looked at whether using quiet, low traffic streets has a different effect on pedestrians than using streets busy with shops, traffic and other pedestrians.

Eye tracking machines are another tool providing research findings of interest to urban designers.  They study gaze behaviours and cognition, which are in turn related to attention, memory, language, problem solving, and decision making.  Eye tracking can help researchers to understand which features catch and hold attention, visual preferences and experiences. For example, one eye-tracking study found (perhaps unsurprisingly) that humans prefer lush greenery in urban environments.

As these neurological research and related technologies advance, their application will undoubtedly become more sophisticated and widespread.

 

Building upon evidence

The urban population around the world is expanding rapidly and finding solutions to the mental and physical health challenges that cities present is crucial.

By understanding the insights that neuroscience can provide, city planners, policy makers and others involved in urban design can access a growing evidence base upon which to build future cities that are healthy, attractive and inclusive places to live.


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The rise in youth markets – “transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”

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Credit: National Market Traders Federation (NMTF)

By Heather Cameron

As we recently reported, despite being around for centuries, and following a decline during the recession, traditional retail markets have experienced something of a revival in recent years, with a new generation of innovative young traders coming to the fore.

Latest figures indicate the sector has a collective turnover of £2.7 billion a year from around 32,000 market traders – a gradual increase of around £200 million year on year since 2013.

The last five years has also witnessed the emergence of youth markets and ‘The Teenage Market’ initiative, which are generating income for young people and teaching them valuable entrepreneurial lessons, as well as transforming town and city centres.

Specialist market boom

But this revival is not wholly in the traditional sense of the market sector. Young people entering the sector tend to trade at festivals, fairs and shows rather than traditional markets, contributing to a specialist market boom.

According to a recent survey of the sector by the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA), new trends in the most successful product lines – hot and cold food and drink, baked goods, handmade crafts, fruit and vegetables and mobile phone accessories – have fuelled this growth.

Festivals and shows, which are popular with a younger demographic, are increasing in both size and frequency across the UK. Many of these events also take place out of the traditional season.

Such new trends do not come without their challenges, however, as NABMA’s survey also highlighted. Traders reported escalating pitch fees, poor pitch locations and never-ending paperwork. But despite these drawbacks, traders have reported huge returns at such events, where they can turn over tens of thousands of pounds.

Both NABMA and the National Market Traders Federation (NMTF) agree that the sector needs to embrace these new trends and act to engage this new generation of entrepreneurs.

Youth markets

Indeed, national initiatives in support of youth markets have emerged in recent years to do just that.

This September will see the fifth National Youth Market take place in Manchester, an annual event run by the NMTF in partnership with Manchester Markets. Young people between the age of 16 and 30 from all over the UK trade at this event, showcasing their entrepreneurial talent.

The NMTF also supports traditional market organisers to run specialist markets aimed specifically at young people. Many towns and cities from across the UK have launched their own youth markets, such as those in Manchester and Cambridge, with over 100 such events taking place every year.

Also in its fifth year, is The Teenage Marketa fast-growing national initiative that’s transforming town and city centres with the creativity of young people”. This initiative provides a free platform for young people to trade at specially organised events. In addition to the retail offer, it also provides a platform for young performers to showcase their talents

Created by two teenage brothers from Stockport to support their town’s large population of young people, The Teenage Market initiative has quickly expanded across the country with thousands of young people taking part in events. Following the success of the first event, it was quickly recognised that the initiative could play an important role in the town’s regeneration strategy; a role which was highlighted by Mary Portas in her 2011 review of high streets.

Revitalising town centres

According to Portas, “Markets are a fantastic way to bring a town to life… I believe markets can serve as fundamental traffic drivers back to our high streets.” And one of her recommendations was to build upon current successful initiatives “to help attract young entrepreneurs to markets and really start building the innovative markets of the future.”

Indeed, the positive benefits for the towns and cities running The Teenage Market events include a rise in footfall, an increase in spend in the local area and a rise in the number of visitors to their local market.

Not only this, but the fusion of retail and live performances has succeeded in attracting a new generation of shoppers and visitors to local markets, helping to breathe new life into town and city centres.

Final thoughts

In an era of online shopping and declining high streets, the fact that local markets led by a new generation of traders are flourishing can only be a good thing.

And with an ageing population of traders, it is arguably now more important than ever to encourage young traders in order to secure the future prosperity of the markets industry.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on street markets.

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Accelerated development: do Simplified Planning Zones work?

The Hillington Park SPZ has accelerated a number of developments, including a “motorbike village”.

by Donna Gardiner

A simplified planning zone (SPZ) is a designated area where the need to apply for planning permission for certain types of development is removed so long as the development complies with a range of pre-specified conditions.

Although the SPZ concept has been around since the 1970s, the idea has never really taken off, and there are very few SPZs in the UK.

However, in the last 12 months there have been some signs of renewed interest in the concept.  As part of the current review of the planning system, the Scottish Government has shown considerable enthusiasm for the potential of SPZs to address the housing crisis and support economic development.

In their most recent position statement, they state:

Zoning has potential to unlock significant areas for housing development, including by supporting alternative delivery models such as custom and self-build. This could also support wider objectives including business development and town centre renewal

Indeed, the Scottish Government recently committed £120,000 to help four local authorities develop pilot SPZs for housing development in Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, and North Ayrshire.

There are also plans underway for the creation of two new SPZs in Scotland.  In Aberdeenshire, councillors have agreed that planning officers should begin the statutory process for the creation of an SPZ for industrial and commercial activity in the south of Peterhead. The SPZ aims to strengthen the town’s position as a key strategic investment location, and complement work to regenerate the town centre.

At the other end of the country, in the Scottish Borders, a consultation has recently closed on the creation of an SPZ in Tweedbank – the new Central Borders Business Park.  The scheme aims to capitalise on the opportunities brought about by the Borders Railway, and is likely to receive additional funding as part of the recently agreed Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

While there is enthusiasm for the Tweedbank SPZ, East Berwickshire councillor Jim Fullerton notes: “The question of the viability of this project has to be recorded. Enthusiasm is one thing, but evidence of it being viable is the key.”

Viability

So what is the evidence on the viability of SPZ’s?  In theory, SPZs can offer a number of benefits for both the developer and the planning authority, including:

  • removal of the ‘planning hurdle’ and associated fees
  • faster decision making and accelerated development
  • greater certainty for developers and stakeholders
  • simplified planning control
  • reduces the need for repetitive planning applications
  • saves time and costs both for organisations and the local planning authority
  • offers more flexibility than a masterplan
  • attracts investment
  • can help to promote the reuse of existing space

However, while there are equivalent mechanisms in other countries, there are currently only two other operational SPZs in Scotland – Hillington Industrial Estate and Renfrew High Street.  They are widely considered a success, with Scottish Planner concluding that:

Both projects are a good example of how planning professionals, working with commercial stakeholders, can cooperate successfully in finding new ways to encourage sustainable economic growth.

Case study: Glasgow City Council and Hillington

In 2014, the first SPZ in Scotland in 20 years – the Hillington Park SPZ – was established by a partnership between Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council.

The award-winning SPZ allows the landowner to increase space at the site by around 85,000 square metres, as long as proposals conform to the conditions set out in the SPZ scheme.

The SPZ is valid for 10 years.  So far, it has triggered around 20,000 square metres of development and attracted around £20 million pounds of investment.  Not only has it helped to promote the reuse of existing space, such as the obsolete Rolls Royce plant, it claims to have given the area a commercial advantage in attracting inward investment.

Jamie Cumming, the director of Hillington Park, said: “Our SPZ status means that new developments like the ‘motorbike village’ with Ducati Glasgow, Triumph Glasgow and West Coast Harley-Davidson as well as Lookers plc’s new Volvo and Jaguar showrooms and our own Evolution Court manufacturing and logistics development can be accelerated with an anticipated build time of just 10 months.”

Case study: Renfrew Town Centre

Building on the success of the SPZ at Hillington, in 2015 Renfrewshire council created the Renfrew Town Centre SPZ Scotland’s first SPZ focusing on town centres.  Renfrew is a “small, but vibrant” town centre. The SPZ aims to support existing businesses, encourage new businesses, and increase the number of people living within the town centre by supporting the re-use of vacant property on upper floors.

The scheme has been hailed as an excellent example of the Town Centre First principle.

According to Scottish Planner: “The scheme has been well received and offers simplicity to businesses who can invest in the town centre knowing that they can change the use of premises and upgrade the shop front without having to apply for planning permission”.

Challenges

However, SPZs are not without their challenges.  These include the initial costs of establishing the SPZ, which can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the scheme.  There is also the need to ensure that the SPZ is ‘future-proofed’ – so that it is still relevant throughout the duration of its life (usually 10 years).  It is also important that those establishing an SPZ address the perception held by many that the relaxed planning rules associated with SPZs will result in poor design or compromise environmental impact.

Future directions

In addition to the pilot SPZs, the Scottish Government has commissioned Ryden (in association with Brodies) to undertake research to assess the potential for a more flexible and more widely applicable land use zoning mechanism than SPZs provide at present.  The research will inform the Government’s final proposals.

The research team at Idox will be following the revival of SPZs in Scotland with interest.

Supporting markets to survive and thrive

For around a thousand years, the London Borough Market has existed in one form or another.  It has survived fire, flood, plague and war – and on the 3rd of June this year, a terrorist attack.  The market has since reopened, with traders determined to continue their work and serve the local community.

Although many markets are a historic part of their host towns and cities, they are far from being relics.  Indeed, in recent years markets have experienced something of a revival.  In London alone, since 2010, the number of street markets has grown from 162 to over 250.

There are clear reasons for this – markets offer consumers and traders a number of benefits, and they make significant contributions to the economic, social and political health of towns and cities.

Economic impact of markets

Indeed, in 2015, the Institute of Place Management (IPM) conducted a comprehensive review of the impact of markets and found that markets not only have a significant turnover, they also impact indirectly on the wider economy – meaning that the £3.5 billion turnover directly attributable to retail markets is actually worth around £10.5 billion to the UK economy.

The Portas review in 2011 hailed markets as a potential saviour of the high street.  Indeed, the IPM review supports this, reporting that markets can help to increase town centre footfall by up to 25%.  This has significant economic potential.  In London, market visitors spend around £752 million per annum in nearby shop-based retailers.

Markets were also found to:

  • act as a significant employer, both nationally and at the local level
  • support intergenerational economic mobility (through family-owned businesses)
  • support the development of entrepreneurial skills in young people through ‘youth markets’
  • act as business incubators and support business formation due to their low barriers to entry, for example, enabling migrants to set up their own businesses
  • enable small businesses to reach larger businesses whom they can supply, and support other local businesses, such as farmers.
  • encourage high street diversity and create a distinct ‘identity’ for high streets
  • promote high street resilience, as they are flexible and able to respond quickly to changing demands.
  • help to utilise vacant and underused spaces within high streets
  • attract tourists, who are drawn to them because they are “unique, quirky, unusual”

Wider benefits

Markets also have a number of social purposes.  They are important places of social interaction, which facilitate community cohesion and social inclusion.  Markets can also help to improve public health and quality of life through the provision of fresh, quality produce at lower price points, which may be particularly beneficial for low-income families.

From an environmental perspective, there are also a number of benefits arising from the sale and purchase of locally produced products, including reducing pollution associated with high ‘food miles’ and reducing the need for consumers to travel to out-of-town sites, such as large retail parks, in order to make their purchases.

Challenges

Although there is overwhelming evidence that almost every street, food and farmer’s market is an invaluable asset to its local community, markets still face a number of very real threats.  These include:

  • the rise of out-of-town shopping centres, the dominance of big supermarkets, and the popularity of online shopping
  • planning and regulatory regimes that do not allow for, or restrict, the expansion or establishment of markets
  • a lack of support for markets or poor management by local authorities
  • high land values making it difficult for markets to be established

As many markets are a lifeline for areas experiencing deprivation, it is important that they receive the support that they require to survive and flourish.

Promoting and supporting markets

So, what can be done to support markets?  Earlier this year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced plans to establish the London Markets Board – a team of experts tasked with delivering a London markets strategy, and work to preserve and promote London’s increasing number of markets.

On a wider scale, NABMA (National Association of British Market Authorities) and the National Market Traders Federation recently published a ‘five-year manifesto’, which made a number of recommendations for ways to support markets.

A key recommendation is that local authorities work to raise the profile of markets.  There are many market-focused national initiatives such as Love Your Local Market, the National Youth Market, and the Great British Market Awards, which local authorities can become involved in.

The Love Your Local Market campaign, for example, is an annual event, established in 2012, which brings together markets across the UK.  It aims to build affection and support for markets in local communities, and offers free or subsidised pitches to start-ups to test trading conditions.  In 2013, it increased footfall in participating town centres by 10%.

Other recommendations to support markets include:

  • greater recognition of the role of markets in local economies, jobs and growth, as well as in civic local society
  • ensuring that retail markets have a voice in policy making that affects them, including planning and town centre management
  • further lifting the current burden of business rates for SMEs
  • supporting greater awareness of the sector’s employment opportunities including apprenticeships, platforms for self-employment and training hubs
  • developing and supporting sector-led initiatives that aim to support entrepreneurship and increase the amount of businesses on markets, and support them digitally
  • encouraging schools and further education establishments to work with market operators to enable people entering the labour market to embrace markets as a possible career

There are some promising signs.  Around £90 million has been invested into improving markets since 2014, and an increasing number of local authorities are making them central to town centre plans and regeneration activity.

By promoting and supporting markets in this way, the economic, social and environmental benefits can be maximised. As the 2015 review of markets underlines: “markets are an important asset to a location, and their future cannot be left to chance.”