James Max - James Max is a broadcaster, columnist and business expert

Fixing the nation’s High Streets

With a great fanfare, Mary Portas the TV face of shopping was appointed by the government to review the future of our high streets.

She has made 28 recommendations in her report that was published on the 12th December. If you want to take a look for yourself, here they are.

Much of what Mary proposes is sensible, honest and straightforward. Some of the recommendations may indeed provide short-term assistance for the high street. However as with all of these high profile government appointments, the report has stimulated debate, the government has taken the reflected glory and little will be done.

Some may think it was Napoleon who described Britain as a nation of shopkeepers although it was really Adam Smith who coined the phrase in “The Wealth of Nations”. Nevertheless, looking at our high streets, it’s clear this is no longer the case.

Dominated by multiple retailers, banks and mobile telephone shops the high street isn’t the force it once was.

Most significantly, however, the report doesn’t tackle the reasons why the high street has fallen into decline. Nor has it come up with a range of long-term solutions to fix it. So for the benefit of the nation I decided to provide some thoughts for you.

It’s important to look at what happened to the high street after the Second World War. With many of our town centres decimated either by bombs or by shopkeepers helping the war effort, there was a void. Slowly but surely, multiple retailers filled that void. In no other nation is the high street dominated by so many names that are everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go in our country but you will see familiar names on the high street. Chains who have progressively sucked the life from our local communities. Initially it was a good thing. Investment led to busy high streets and people shopped there. But then came rising rents, an unbalanced playing field, parking restrictions, out of town shopping developments and local taxation.

With the advent of shopping centres and out of town retail parks, many of those multiples closed or relocated. Yet their departure has largely been filled by vacancy rather than new entrants.

Mary Portas is right when she recommends a review of parking charges and business rates but she doesn’t go far enough. Multiple retailers, landlords and local councils have looked to extract as much cash as they can from the high street. Meanwhile local shoppers have looked for cheaper and more convenient shopping destinations. As a result it’s becoming a bleak and desolate landscape.

Whilst this subject deserves a further report and in depth analysis and consultation with landlords, local authorities, retailers and investors, I’d suggest five broad ideas that might tackle the cause of the problem rather than short term “quick fix” solutions.

i) New legislation to change the landlord and tenant relationship. The abolition of the upwards only rent review clause would be a good starting point for designated properties. This would force landlords to accept lower

rents and introduce real competition. Rent review clauses, obligations on tenants and rent calculations also need to change. Some might suggest tax breaks. However that would simply line landlords’ pockets. Turnover rents and rates might be a stimulant, for example.

ii) Business rates can no longer be applied on a uniform basis and specific properties should be targeted for special rate relief.

iii) Every high street should have certain properties designated for a specific use. Landlords should be paid off to enable these restrictive covenants to be put in place.

iv) Parking restrictions should change; allowing sensible schemes to ensure visitors can get in and out easily. However, universal free parking isn’t the answer otherwise the shop workers will take all the spaces instead!

v) Out of town retailing is all very well but unless there is a balance and restriction of supply, the high street will continue to suffer.

However even if we do change the leases that are signed and the rates businesses pay, we have further issues to tackle. The most difficult area is behaviour. As a nation we have become lazy. Through our demands for one-stop shopping we have turned to the supermarkets, multiples, out of town centres and the internet. Unless we are prepared to make more of an effort and to give our patronage to local shops and businesses none of this will work.

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