The pressure on budgets means councils are going to be tempted to wring every last penny out of their town centres. But ultimately if they fail to invest in making their high streets attractive places to shop, they’ll only have themselves to blame when retailers walk away
The champagne was flowing on the terrace at the Houses of Parliament on Monday night, as the New West End Company celebrated its 10th birthday in the company of retailers, property owners and politicians.
While there remains plenty wrong with the West End - notably the decrepit eastern end of Oxford Street and the static line of empty buses - it has been through a remarkable renaissance over the past decade where the arrival of some of the world’s most exciting and sought after retailers and improvements to the physical environment have transformed its attractiveness to shoppers from both here and overseas.
The West End Business Improvement District has been a model of how the system can work, benefiting from voluntary contributions from landlords as well as the levy retailers are obliged to pay through their rates, and has won widespread support from all sides.
While London retail prospers, it must seem like world away for the unfortunate burghers of Lincolnshire as they come to terms with the loss of three of the county’s Marks & Spencer stores. M&S’s UK store closure plans might only involve four stores at present, but anyone who lives in a town where M&S has shut its high street store will tell you that the loss of the unique credibility it gives a provincial town signals the death knell for its high street.
A trawl of the local newspaper sites in the towns affected reveals outpourings of angst from council leaders, local MPs and shoppers. But the reality is that by the time M&S decides to quit somewhere, the stable door is wide open and the horse has bolted, and the resulting loss of footfall is terrible news for those retailers left behind.
Now there’s no doubt that getting retailers interested in Oxford Street is a lot easier than engaging with them over the future of Scunthorpe, but this a big economic, social and political issue for every town. And while some are doing a great job of encouraging shoppers, other councils have been treating their high streets as a cash cow. As one retailer at the New West End event told me, “it costs as much to park in Stockport as it does in the West End”, which whether correct or not, isn’t a great perception when you’ve got the Trafford Centre just down the road.
The pressure on budgets means councils are going to be tempted to wring every last penny out of their town centres. But ultimately if they fail to invest in making their high streets attractive places to shop, they’ll only have themselves to blame when retailers walk away. And when that happens, the shoppers will follow suit.