Up the High Street

Last week, in the House of Commons, I was able to speak about the recent report by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on High streets and town centres in 2030. I thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry, including our witnesses. We took a range of evidence from retailers, councils, landlords, planners and academics.

The decline of the high street is a real concern to the general public. The change—the reduction in the number of people shopping, in some cases the empty shops, and in the worst cases the decay and deterioration across villages, small towns, larger towns, cities and district centres—is almost entirely down to online shopping.

Some 20% of sales are now done online: the highest percentage anywhere in the world. That has happened in the UK over a fairly short period—the past 10 or 15 years—and in many cases the use of shops and the reaction of councils and the Government have not kept pace with that very rapid change. As politicians, we cannot and should not want to halt it, but we must look at what we can do to mitigate its impact and address the situation.

We concluded that the days when the high street was 100% retail have gone. here now needs to be a strategy in each area, backed by the local community, initiated by local councils and supported by local traders, to create a different approach to the activities on the high street. We concluded that if high streets and centres are to survive and thrive by 2030, they must become

“activity-based community gathering places, with a reduced retail element and a wider range of uses, including green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care, and housing, with the community at its heart.”

Councils have a really important role to play in developing that approach, working with local communities and businesses. Business improvement districts can play an important part. It means that local plans

“must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years’ time.”

We are pleased that the Government has now accepted that all local plans should be reviewed every five years, and that town and city centre strategies should be looking at least 10 years ahead. But that cannot happen given the 50% cuts in planning budgets resulting from government cuts.

The Government’s £675 million future high streets fund is helpful, but not enough. It cannot be a talking shop. Real, hard advice and learning from others must be at the heart of it.

In order to make things happen quicker, there has to be change in procedures for compulsory purchase powers. We were also clear that the government’s new permitted development rights should not be allowed to get in the way of a local plan that tries to change the fundamental land use of part of a centre.

It is unfortunate that government ministers have got their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of business rates. Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover on business rates while high street chains spend between 1.5% and 6.5% of their turnover on business rates; in other words, some high street businesses are paying 10 times as much as their online competitors. That simply is not fair.

We said that the government look at a number of options: an online sales tax, an extension to VAT, a green tax on deliveries, or anything to reflect changing shopping habits. But they came back and said no; they did not want to do anything at all. I say “Get real. It cannot continue like it is.”

But retail landlords also have to get real. We asked the government to look again at upward-only rent reviews, and they said, “No, we’re not going to interfere in contracts between landlord and tenant.” That cannot be. Putting the decision off only makes things harder.

There are big High Street challenges for councils, central Government, retailers and landlords. We concluded

“Unless…urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether.”

It’s time for that urgent action.

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