For too long the UK’s town centres have been crippled by taxes, plagued by crime and neglected by central and local government. Launching Retail Week’s Manifesto for the High Street, Tim Danaher explains what needs to be done to draw shoppers back
The UK’s high streets face a critical threat. Up and down the country, what were once thriving retail centres at the heart of their communities are now shadows of their former selves, with swathes of empty shops creating a desolate atmosphere.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Some towns and cities are bucking the trend, and showing how simple measures can make a big difference and help draw the shoppers back to struggling centres.
Today Retail Week launches a Manifesto for the High Street - a 10-point plan setting out what the Government, local authorities and retailers need to do, working together to breathe new life into the UK’s shopping streets.
In a series of articles over the next four weeks, we’ll be examining the challenges facing the high street, visiting some of the hardest hit town centres but also looking at examples of best practice. And we also want to hear from you - do you agree with the manifesto? And what else should be on it? Join the debate on our dedicated microsite - www.retail-week.com/highstreet.
The state of the UK’s high streets has become inescapable over the past year since the collapse of Woolworths. In the space of little more than a week, a giant gap emerged on more than 800 shopping streets nationwide, many of them places where the 99-year-old variety store was the biggest store in town.
But the rot had set in long before then. In fact, for many locations, Woolies’ demise was the final nail in the coffin. For too long, town centres have been seen as a cash cow by local authorities and suffered from a lack of interest from central government.
“This is a long-term trend which needs tackling even more urgently because of the economic situation,” says BRC director-general Stephen Robertson. “The problems have been getting worse over the medium term but now a lot of high streets have reached a tipping point.”
The growth of out-of-town retailing has been good news for both shoppers and retailers, giving consumers more choice and allowing retailers to expand. But town centres have failed to keep up, and now the rise of online shopping has ramped up the scale of the challenge further.
Put simply, now more than ever high streets need to give shoppers a reason to visit. Too often they fail. “Customers want a choice, and they want more vibrant and attractive town centres,” says Tesco executive director Lucy Neville-Rolfe.
Time to make a stand
Many retailers are more than aware that if high streets continue to suffer, ultimately their businesses will too. Last summer Boots partly funded a BRC report entitled 21st Century High Streets. Boots UK health and beauty chief executive Alex Gourlay is among the growing number of retailers alarmed at the decline of many of the locations that their business operates in.
“The key thing is there needs to be a level playing field from the cost point of view,” he says, adding that property costs, especially business rates, have become a massive headache for retailers. “How can we incentivise shopkeepers to stay competitive on the high street?”
While rents have stagnated in the recession, that doesn’t mean the costs of occupying retail property have remained flat. Many retailers face a double whammy this year of the business rates revaluation combined with the deferral of last year’s business rates rise, which will mean a big hike in occupational costs.
The most frequently raised concern among those retailers Retail Week spoke to wasn’t business rates, but parking. While out-of-town parking at retail parks and supermarkets - which is usually on privately owned land - is generally free, in-town car parks, where the council is the landlord, generally charge, and have been seen as a source of easy revenue for local councils.
“When you look at how much it costs to park in town centres, you’d think councils actually don’t want people to park there,” says Argos managing director Sara Weller. “I understand that you don’t want people who are going to work parking there all day, but we have a lot of out-of-town stores and there the parking is free.”
Gourlay also believes cash-strapped councils have seen parking charges as easy money. “Politically it’s a lot easier to put up parking charges rather than close the local museum,” he says.
This is not an issue of big retail versus small - the problems of the high street affect everyone that trades on them. Retail Week columnist Ian Middleton, who owns three-store Oxford-based jewellery chain Argenteus says parking, along with the management of roadworks, are the two biggest issues retailers face at a local level.
“They’re both out of our control and on occasions are handled with very little concern for how much they will impact trade,” he says. “Parking in particular tends to be looked on by councils as a money-spinner.” Adding insult to injury, retailers find themselves penalised for making deliveries to their stores, even at night.
Increasingly, multiple retailers are realising it’s the unique independent retailers that give the best local high streets their distinctive edge - Gourlay believes that collaboration at a local level could be where retailers can help out their smaller peers.
He explains: “I believe the high streets that are more successful are the ones which have a local butcher, or a local CD shop alongside a mixture of multiples. I’d love to be able to set up some sort of help for independent retailers with the basics of making money. Often they have passion for their product but might need help with business.”
For second-tier towns and local shopping parades though, the problems they face are much more serious than whether there’s still a baker or a fishmonger. Anti-social behaviour, whether shambling drunks or gangs of threatening hoodies, is a genuine issue for many high streets and shopping parades. The well managed environments of the big shopping centres and retail parks have no such problems.
It’s an issue that is familiar to Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman.
He says that while high-profile cases of retail crime grab the headlines, it’s the low-level day-to-day abuse and intimidation of staff which is a major problem that drags down shopping locations.
“It needs to be made very clear that retail crime is not a non-crime,” he says. “The danger is retailers end up with a siege mentality. Retailers need and deserve support from the police and the criminal justice system.”
Creating and then maintaining the right environment in town centres is vital if shoppers are going to be drawn out to shop in them - particularly in the age of the internet, when anything can be bought without leaving the sofa.
On a positive note, town centre management schemes and Business Improvement Districts are playing a genuine part in improving the commercial environment, and partnerships will be key to the high street’s future.
“There needs to be a common purpose between central government, local government and retailers,” says Robertson. “At both party conferences I heard much talk about supporting the high street but I see little action.”
But with another tough year ahead widely predicted for the industry, investment can’t be at further cost to retailers. In London, stores are facing an additional levy to pay for Crossrail, even though if you are a retailer in Croydon or Wood Green, you’re unlikely to feel any benefit from the new east-west route.
“What is needed is for the Government to fulfil its responsibilities properly and without regulatory creep, and for the industry to support efforts to fight crime and encourage greener development,” says Neville-Rolfe.
With the public finances under unprecedented pressure, significant extra spending from the Government is unlikely to be forthcoming. But the Manifesto for the High Street isn’t about public spending either; it’s about working together to create low- or no-cost initiatives that can breathe new life into high streets that, in many cases, are on the precipice.
As Robertson puts it: “A high street that’s blighted by disorder or empty shops isn’t serving its community.”
Now is the time for action.
Manifesto for the high street
Provide free town centre parking for shoppers
For too long councils have capitalised on easy revenue from parking charges, even though it’s not a cost you incur shopping out of town or online. Councils need to recognise the role of safe and free - or at the very least affordable - parking to encourage people back into shops. If there are charges, income should be ring-fenced to benefit shoppers and retailers.
Put a freeze on additional taxes on shops
Everyone knows times are tough and any generosity from the Treasury is unlikely. But retailers should not expect additional taxes. Now is not the time for Business Rates Supplements or Community Infrastructure Levies.
Take retail crime seriously
Low-level crime not only makes the life of retail staff - particularly those in convenience stores - a misery, but drives away shoppers. Through local partnerships between police, retailers and local authorities, and backed up by the courts, a zero-tolerance approach to crime and disorder is vital.
Manage infrastructure works better
Roadworks have caused mayhem in town and city centres, as notoriously evidenced by the Edinburgh tram works that paralysed Princes Street for much of last year. Roads and sewers need to be repaired, but work must be done in consultation with retailers and can’t be allowed to affect prime shopping areas for extended periods, because they won’t bounce back.
Compel landlords to contribute to BIDs
Business Improvement Districts have overall been positive, but it’s unfair that retailers are compelled to fund them but those who own the shops aren’t. If landlords get a share of the benefits, they should share in the costs.
Reinvent the high street as a multichannel destination
Etail continues to power ahead, but retains a fundamental handicap - that goods tend to be delivered when customers are at work. Click-and-collect is growing fast but there must be a market for a new genre of high street operations allowing parcels to be collected in the evening and at weekends.
Create an identity
Town centres should be the centre of a town’s social and creative life - after all, you can’t create much of a buzz on a retail park. So creating an identity and using events to reinforce it is a vital point of difference, and councils and town centre managers need to take the lead.
Work in partnership with indies
The greatest thing about the best high streets is their independents, so why shouldn’t there be collaboration within a town to help each other along. If a distinctive offer attracts shoppers back, everyone benefits.
Clear up the clutter
There are some great examples of town centres where unnecessary clutter has been cleared. Keep it simple: litter bins and benches are good, forests of signs aren’t. Ban the clipboard-wielding chuggers hassling shoppers, and if you can keep traffic out of the way of shoppers, so much the better - starting with the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street.
Keep an eye on things
Monitoring the health of high streets is vital. Local councils should be compelled to carry out an annual healthcheck of their town centre, benchmarking against other towns on data such as vacancy rates. That way any decline can be nipped in the bud.
Retail Week is organising a conference to discuss the issues around the future of the UK high street. Saving Britain’s High Streets will be held in `Birmingham on March 18 and feature speakers including shadow secretary state for communities Caroline Spelman, John Lewis development director Jeremy Collins and Tesco executive director Lucy Neville-Rolfe. For more details visit: Savethehighstreet.co.uk.