The future of the high street has concerned retailers in recent years, but rates reform could give run-down town centres a new lease of life.

In recent years, the health of the high street has never been far from the headlines. Only two weeks ago it was back in the spotlight when the Local Data Company and PwC revealed that in 2014 retailers in Britain closed almost a thousand more retail units than they opened.

Some of this may be due to combining smaller units into larger stores. However, it does seem indicative of a continuously changing profile of town centres.

The disappearance of retailers such as Phones 4U and Blockbuster served as a reminder that, despite the improving economic environment, some categories continue to face deep-rooted structural challenges.

The obituary of the UK high street has been written many times over, but I remain an optimist. We in BrightHouse are about to open our 300th store. We operate throughout Britain, in market towns and across a diversity of urban and suburban centres. Some are in relatively rundown localities but, even in these, there are numerous examples of renewal and restoration programmes in conjunction with local associations.

For instance, local Business Improvement Districts are having an impact on improving the public realm.

Often, what may seem relatively minor changes can make a difference to the attractiveness of a shopping destination. For today’s consumer, there are prerequisites such as well-maintained public toilets, and convenient bus shelters. Town centre parking facilities should exist to provide access for shoppers rather than to balance the local council’s books.

I’d suggest that the high street is more than a place for shopping. People enjoy being in our better high streets, which do provide friendly and supportive environments for social and leisure engagement.  Therefore, a catalyst for filling vacant shops is the shaping of lively town centres.

Prospective new occupants needn’t provide similar services to those they are replacing. A sense of energy, of vibrancy, is often stimulated by the advent of services such as nail bars, jewellers, coffee shops and bistros. Combined with a dynamic retail mix, these young and energetic businesses can reinvigorate a town.

So working with local communities is essential. But central government also has a vital contribution to make.

Vigorous campaigning, led by the BRC and by Retail Week, has stimulated cross-party recognition that UK high streets are penalised by the oppressive burden of a regressive and archaic system of business rates. For example, the system fails to take account of the severe decline in rental values during the past five years. Moreover, its appeal processes are clumsily bureaucratic.  

Although long overdue, the Chancellor’s Budget commitment to a radical review of the business rates system is welcome. It also is encouraging that the Government is seeking the views of business on how a fairer format can be applied, whilst sustaining fiscal neutrality. Let’s ensure that we retailers proactively contribute to the agenda.

  • Leo McKee is chief executive of BrightHouse