Former Focus DIY boss Bill Grimsey has made renewed calls for a dedicated minister for town centres and urged for joined-up thinking between local authorities and the Government.
Speaking before the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee today, Grimsey, who released a report on the high street this year, said: “There is a need for a cabinet minister just for town centres to ensure plans are produced and there’s a co-ordinated approach for local communities… Since I produced this report, I sent it to Downing Street and got a response in September. The pace of activity is frustrating… there should be a minister for town centres.”
Grimsey, speaking at the last evidence session of the committee’s inquiry into the UK retail sector, elaborated: “I am talking about somebody co-ordinating what needs to be done to address the dilemmas facing our decaying towns.
“In Morecambe one in every three shops has already closed. There’s no plan as to what to do for more. I believe somebody should be there to see what can be done to make Morecambe a successful place for the 21st century.”
He added: “Unless you’ve got a high street minister I can take this to… this is going to wind up like the rest of the reviews, sat on a shelf.”
Brandon Lewis MP, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government, was handed the high street brief this month, amid complaints that the Government was not taking town centre regeneration seriously.
Lewis is a junior minister and took over the remit from Mark Prisk, who was a minister of state when he had responsibility for the high street.
Grimsey, the former boss of Wickes and Iceland, said there needed to be responsibility handed out for the high street like there would be in a retail boardroom environment.
“I don’t know enough of the government structure but I can tell you when you are running a retail business it is like running a country,” he said. “You have various people sitting around the boardroom, you have a guy for operations, one for personnel… the fact is if you don’t have somebody responsible then the buyers could buy the wrong product and that retail company is not going to survive.
“You need people sitting round a table and somebody saying ‘unless you do something for your department, your town centres, this is the consequence’ and I don’t see a voice doing that. I don’t see joined up thinking coming out of local and central government over what to do with our town centres.”
Asked whether the government needed a minister for the retail sector, Michael Fallon, minister of state for the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), responded: “I am the minister responsible for the retail sector. Retail is an important part of my workload. I have regular meetings with the Retail Policy Forum. My job is to keep in touch with major organisations, retailers and other BIS ministers. If you are looking for a minister of retail, it is me.”
Grimsey also said Boxpark chief executive Roger Wade’s calls for the Government to offer smaller retailers a three month business rates holiday, encouraging them to launch pop-up shops in empty units, could help inspire youth to “become entrepreneurs because they are the Philip Greens of this world in fifty years’ time. We need to foster that, it’s important”.
He also reiterated his view that the high street was overfilled with charity shops and betting shops. “Charities shouldn’t be retailers. For example, Oxfam has morphed into a chain retailer.”
Brandon Lewis MP urged local authorities to do more to help their town centres.
“All of us have speak with a microphone to keep reminding local authorities that we have been giving them a lot of power,” he said. “It is your town centre, your community, you have the power… you have to motivate local authorities to work with the powers we have given them.”
British Retail Consortium director general Helen Dickinson said: “The purpose of this Select Committee is to consider what the Government can to do to support the retail sector. Today proceedings rightly highlighted the significant contribution that the industry makes to jobs and developing people, and to communities and the economy, as well as how quickly the market is changing in response to technology and consumer preferences.
“As I sat listening this morning, I was heartened that business rates played a major part in discussions, as our members tell us time and again that this outdated and disproportionate tax has a crucial bearing on the health of our high streets and the industry’s ability to be fleet of foot and continue to support our communities and invest and create local jobs.
“The BRC is leading a rigorous process of examining options for reform of the business rates system and its impact across the whole industry with tax experts EY, and we’re delighted that Brandon Lewis told the committee that he looks forward to seeing what conclusions we reach. Reform is the way forward to support the vibrancy our industry and enable retailers of all shapes and sizes, big and small, to meet the needs of consumers.”