As Britain goes to the polls, I’m going to resist the temptation to predict the outcome, especially after recent votes on both sides of the Atlantic.
But I will stick my neck out: whoever does come to power must do more to support the British high street or risk further economic and social decline.
And I’m not just saying that because BrightHouse has 283 stores, mostly sited in high streets up and down the UK.
The high street has always been far more than just a place to shop. It’s where people meet and socialise – the focal point of the community.
I’m passionate about harnessing technology, and the ability of ecommerce to make people’s lives easier in an increasingly digital world is to be welcomed.
However, I also believe that the high street plays a vital role in our society that hypermarkets and the internet cannot fill.
Deeper customer relationships
We see this every day in the deep relationships between our colleagues and our customers.
“It’s amazing how close a correlation there is between the state of the high street, the strength of the community and the store’s performance”
We offer electronic and automatic payments, but many of our customers choose to visit our stores each week to make their payment and chat to our colleagues.
They know our names and we know theirs, as well as their children and even their pets.
I spend a lot of my time visiting our stores and I always try to get a feel for the local area. It’s amazing how close a correlation there is between the state of the high street, the strength of the community and the store’s performance.
Although there are many vibrant and well-managed areas, there are also lots of ways in which the UK’s retail infrastructure isn’t fit for purpose.
Far too many town centres are in disrepair, with gap-toothed high streets that do little to entice shoppers to visit and spend their money.
“Revisiting financial support for retailers hit by higher business rates would be a good start”
It’s a downward spiral that needs to be arrested and whoever wins the election needs to pull the right levers to do so.
Revisiting financial support for retailers hit by higher business rates would be a good start, bringing investment, development and employment.
So what makes the difference between success and despair on the high street?
From despair to success
The first is transport, which means local buses and car parks that are well managed and reasonably priced to encourage people to visit regularly.
The second is clean and bright streets, which make visitors feel comfortable to stay.
Finally, a range of facilities from cafes to loos, which encourage them to return.
“The success of out of town shopping centres has led to the decline of a number of prosperous high streets”
Beyond these, I’d highlight the power of planners to make the difference.
The success of out-of-town shopping centres has led to the decline of a number of prosperous high streets with little apparent thought to the wider social and economic impacts of these massive developments.
However, there are also positive signs with some enlightened councils supporting imaginative ways to bring flats above retail units and underused offices into residential use.
Making it easy for people to live in a town centre can quickly breathe life back into shopping areas and the local economy.
The high street faces some major challenges, but it wouldn’t take much to arrest its decline and bring it back to the centre of our lives.