With recent news that retail jobs have fallen in every UK region outside of London and that Amazon is trialling pop-up ‘Clicks and Mortar’ stores in the UK, which will be stocked with products from independent online retailers. We looked at the ongoing debates about how best to secure a sustainable future for UK High Streets, in the face of the relentless march of online retailers, out-of-town retail parks and changing shopping habits.
Firstly, in Left Foot Forward Prem Sikka argues that local councils, stripped of powers over decades by central government and battered by austerity policies, should be empowered by a range of new policy options enabling them to respond to local circumstances and revive their local economies. The author proposes that councils should be authorised to compulsory purchase shops and shopping centres, funded by loans and/or people’s bonds, allowing them to reduce rents and explore risk management strategies to support businesses to thrive, such as variable rents. Partnerships between councils and local businesses could re-imagine local town centres with a mix of shops,services, residential, offices and leisure facilities.
Regionally, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has called for a wholesale review of the ‘outdated’ business rates system as priority action of any new government. He also advocates giving local authorities the power to reduce business rates and grant reliefs to new and expanding businesses; and giving a 100 per cent relief to public sector organisations who bring their services into high street locations.
Meanwhile, Vidhya Alakeson the chief executive of Power to Change, argues that while business rates reform is required it shouldn’t simply try to revive the traditional high street model which is unsustainable. He states that High Streets have always been spaces for the local community to come together, do business and interact and gives examples of change that is being driven from the ‘bottom up’ that is transforming high streets in Anfield and Plymouth. Creating both new and loyal customer bases with the added value of responsive employment and training opportunities for local people.
So what the solution?
The truth is no one really knows right now. Its likely big retailers will continue to go bust, the high street retail environment will continue to deteriorate and the debate about the future of our town centres and local high streets will continue – but ultimately there won’t be a one size fits all approach. A national policy approach, such as that advocated by the Timpson Review, that genuinely devolves power to local level and enables local communities to develop the best solutions for their area will most likely elicit the best regenerative results and secure sustainable futures for local centres and high streets.