Our high streets have long been synonymous with innovation. The UK was home to the world’s first department store and high street cashpoint, and independent shops remain integral parts of their communities.
Today, though, high streets and town centres face real challenges, from business rates to the digital economy. It’s a subject close to my heart, as someone who built a career in retail and has also written two reviews looking at the issues and potential solutions.
Let’s start with business rates. The Treasury collects £29 billion from business rates, with £8 billion of this coming from a beleaguered retail sector where high street rates are at an all-time high, tipping many businesses into administration. In addition, bricks-and-mortar retailers are crying foul as online retailers operate from industrial warehouses that attract a lower rates valuation and thus have lower fixed costs.
Just a 2 per cent sales tax on the circa £400 billion of retail sales in the UK would raise the £8 billion that is currently raised from retailers by business rates. It would also level the playing field between bricks-and-mortar and online retailers. Local authorities could then apply a small tax for the services they supply to businesses, such as waste collection – one that actually reflects the costs of those services.
For the Treasury and local authorities, high streets seem to be a cash cow that can be squeezed ever more aggressively – yet our high street has always been first and foremost about community. Its hustle, bustle, energy and creativity brings people together.
That’s why, in our recent Grimsey Review 2 (which can be seen in full at www.vanishinghighstreet.com), we put forward recommendations that could make a real difference. These include embedding libraries and public spaces at the heart of each community as digital and health hubs that embrace smart technology. Authorities should appoint high quality design teams to create spaces for civic and social use.
Free public wi-fi and well-connected workplaces would support flexible working patterns and attract freelancers to town centres. There could be a nominal maximum parking charge of £1 for the first two hours in town centres, and 30 minutes of free parking in high streets with no paid extension option.
What we found most encouraging while carrying out research for our second review, five years on from the first, is that many places had answered our rallying call. For example, our first review captured the imagination of Kris Declercq, the mayor of a town called Roeselare in West Flanders, Belgium. Our review was used as a blueprint to transform the place, and today, Roeselare is reaping the benefits.
Although there are still too many places where that journey is yet to begin, I am optimistic that politicians and local authorities are listening. We can transform our town centres into unique places or ‘community hubs’ that are not based on retailing alone, but also engage with health, education, entertainment, arts, crafts and housing. For that, we need strong visionary leaders to create the right conditions for success.