Retail industry experts, led by Sir John Timpson, have released a report pushing for a “community-focused approach” to tackle the challenges facing high streets and town centres.

The Government-appointed panel has published steps to reinvigorate town centres by including leisure, social services and more residential property alongside stores, using the £675m Future High Streets Fund announced in October.

The High Street Report recommends the creation of a town centre task force, supporting local leaders and a ‘National High Street Perfect Day’ – one day a year when communities help to make their town centre look as good as possible.

Other measures put forward include improving cross-sector networking and best practice, streamlining the planning process and helping local “champions” drive their plans forward.

Councils are also encouraged to review parking provision in favour of businesses to encourage footfall.

‘Councils need to do a hell of a lot more’

Property specialist Harper Dennis Hobbs’ director of retail consulting, Jonathan De Mello, says councils must heed the report’s message.

He says: “I agree, councils need to do a hell of a lot more.

“We have too much space and not enough of the right sort of space, but it’s not as simple as that.”

He backs the idea that planning rules must be loosened to allow local authorities to make desperately needed overhauls of ageing town centres.

“Most high streets are old converted residential units. They’re not fit for purpose and are often too small and badly configured”

Jonathan De Mello, Harper Dennis Hobbs

“Most high streets are old converted residential units,” he says. “They’re not fit for purpose and are often too small and badly configured.

“Councils have to have the power to [overhaul town centres], unshackled by government. They know what is best for the area.”

He also says business rates must come down substantially. “I’m working with a lot of retailers and stores that have seen business rates costs two- or three-times higher than rent,” he adds.

Practical measures

British Retail Consortium director of business and regulation Tom Ironside also welcomes the report.

He says: “The creation of the £675m Future High Streets Fund, announced at the Budget to support the transformation of high streets and town centres, is a welcome recognition of the need to support our commercial areas as they work to ensure that they remain relevant and commercially vibrant in the future.

“It is essential that the Government takes additional robust steps to provide real support to struggling high streets”

Tom Ironside, BRC

“The final report contains strong advice on how to ensure that that funding is used to best effect, notably through the oversight of the high streets task force and practical measures for local leaders to implement in their local areas.

“At the same time, it is essential that the Government takes additional robust steps to provide real support to struggling high streets.

“Most importantly, wholesale reform of business rates is needed for our towns and high streets to thrive.

“The issue remains that the business rates burden is simply too high and disproportionately impacts the retail industry.”

‘They need to leave their offices and talk to us’

Former Apprentice contestant and entrepreneur Frances Bishop, who founded boutique children’s business The Pud Store, says councils can only improve the prospects of high streets by forging relationships with retailers.

“They need to leave their offices and talk to us,” she says. “Until we get someone in the council who has been a retailer, or understands the industry, it’s not going to work.

“A shop worker could tell you more about the struggles in this sector than any council worker.”

“Retailers have got to stop this ‘woe is me’ attitude. They need to say, ‘these are the costs, how can we deal with it?’”

Frances Bishop, entrepreneur

While she agrees that business rates are too high, she thinks retailers cannot always use that as an excuse for poor performance.

She says: “Retailers have got to stop this ‘woe is me’ attitude. They need to say, ‘these are the costs, how can we deal with it?’”

It seems that retailers welcome the common-sense proposals at the heart of The High Street Report, particularly those encouraging councils to work more closely with retailers.

But other reports in the past have made recommendations that have not been implemented.

As Bishop puts it: “Councils know what they need to do. I don’t know why they don’t just do it.”

Timpson’s key recommendations

The high street task force

The report states that each town has a unique culture and heritage, and it should be up to the local community to come up with their proposed solutions.

It says: “Successful change is created by local communities who have a vision for their high street and town centre. This is usually driven by inspirational local leaders.”

It adds that the task force should provide cross-sector support to encourage peer-to-peer networking and increase skills in economic development in local councils.

It should also bring together local authorities, business leaders, community leaders and voluntary sector organisations and embed this collaboration in its processes and aims.

The task force should set out a package of data protocols for places to use to assess their performance, the impact of their solutions and compare to other similar places.

Places need to be able to define “what good looks like” for their projects.

The task force should aim to make planning decisions simpler, quicker and more aligned to local strategies.

Future High Streets Fund

In October’s Budget, the chancellor announced a £675m Future High Streets Fund to help town centres plan better spaces for their communities.

The money should be used to restructure high streets and town centres for the future. There should not be a “one size fits all” list of characteristics in places to fund, as each town has an individual requirement.

Good schemes should create interest from prospective commercial partners.

Further recommendations

  • The report suggests a National High Street Perfect Day – a locally funded initiative when every shopping street “looks the best it possibly can”.
  • Local authorities should use their initiative to encourage landlords and tenants to think innovatively about how to use empty properties. If a deal can’t be struck at the market rent, special terms should be offered to community businesses or other traders with social purpose.
  • Parking is an important factor taken into account when people decide where to shop. In the short term, local authorities should review their parking provision to make sure that existing restrictions and charges are working to support access to local businesses, encouraging footfall and attracting customers to town centres and high streets.