It was revealed at Retail Week Live that the Government has set up a new council aimed at developing policies to help the retail sector.

The minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, Andrew Griffiths, who is responsible for retail, told delegates that the new Retail Sector Council will support collaboration between Government and the industry.

He added that it will be a “dynamic tool” for developing policy and innovation.

“It’s time for the retail sector and the Government to work together to understand the issues, and come up with solutions to tackle productivity, the skills shortage and the challenges of new technology,” the minister thundered.

He promised a team of experienced retail leaders will join him on the new council, including heavyweight industry flag-bearer Richard Pennycook as his co-chair.

The Fenwick and Hut Group chairman will be accompanied by a broad spread of retail aficionados, stretching across pureplays, unions and farm shops.

Members of the Retail Sector Council

Co-chair: Andrew Griffiths, minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility

Co-chair: Richard Pennycook, chairman of Fenwick, The Hut Group, Howden Joinery Group and British Retail Consortium

Doug Gurr, UK country manager, Amazon

Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman, John Lewis Partnership

Elizabeth Fagan, managing director, Boots UK & ROI

Nick Beighton, chief executive, Asos

Ursula Lidbetter, chief executive, Lincolnshire Cooperative

John Hannett, general secretary, Usdaw

Diane Savory, chair, GFirst LEP

Victoria Robertshaw, chief executive, Keelham Farm Shop

Helen Dickinson, chief executive, British Retail Consortium

James Lowman, chief executive, Association of Convenience Stores

This gaggle of retail minds will meet regularly to “develop sector-led solutions” to support retailers to survive and thrive amid the toxic cocktail of business rates, the national living wage and shoppers’ growing desire to buy online.

But does the move represent a great step forward for retailers, or will it prove to be just another false dawn? 

A great step forward? 

Speaking to Retail Week, Pennycook outlined some of the ways he hopes the council can positively impact retailers.

First and foremost, he says it will “make sure that [retail’s] voice is heard in Government” and be a sounding board on new ideas prior to their implementation.

Sufficient engagement with Government is something Pennycook says “has been lacking in retail for a long time”.

“When I joined the British Retail Consortium [BRC], it seemed to me that was a gap,” he says.

Discussing some of the practical ways the council can help, Pennycook promises it will strive to find ways of making the apprenticeship levy “really work”, for example.

“It’s an opportunity to skill up a lot of people. The funding is now in place to do that and through the sector council we can work on enhancements to the scheme to make sure retailers can access it properly,” he says.

But he emphasises that any dialogue will be “two-way” with the council “stepping up” to the Government’s corporate responsibility agenda as well as “simply asking them for things”.

“The Government have got to raise money. We can’t simply bleat about business rates without opening up a conversation about what’s the alternative and how that would potentially operate,” he says.

“Retail has had a bit of a reputation in Government for making demands, but not necessarily giving something back.”

Although the sector council will endeavour to address and ultimately sooth the painful issue of business rates, Pennycook says its immediate priorities will be “very pragmatic things like apprenticeships and the potential impacts of Brexit”, which will fill the agenda this year.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson, who also forms part of the council, is confident the forum will make a difference.

She says this is partly because it gives a platform for “senior-level connectivity on a regular basis that includes not just the trade body, but also a number of senior people that represent a cross-section of the whole industry”.

Although she too fears there may not be much appetite for a Government reform of business rates at this point in time, she’s certain that positive outcomes will be reached.

“The kind of people we have signed up would not be giving up their time unless they thought it was worth it and we could achieve something,” she says.

But while Pennycook and Dickinson are, perhaps unsurprisingly, “very confident” that the initiative will make a difference, other retail watchers are more cynical about the council’s potential impact.

A toothless tiger?

According to one senior industry advisor, relations between retailers and Government are on a “treacherously low ebb” due to a lack of communication between the two sectors.

“Retail is so disenfranchised by all the taxes and levies being lobbed at them; all these initiatives are valid, but there’s a lack of comprehension of the impact that they are having on the sector, and that has not been properly addressed,” he says.

For that exact reason, this senior industry figure worries that the council will be more focused on mending fences than effecting tangible change.

“The council could either end up being the voice of the industry or a toothless tiger,” he says.

“There’s some big issues that the sector and Government need to work on together, and the stand-off of the last 18 months is just not acceptable.”

He does acknowledge, however, that the appointment of Pennycook is a “promising start”, because he has experience in the “really difficult side of retail”.

The advisor also takes confidence in the broad range of businesses, including “next-generation” businesses like Amazon and Asos, that have been incorporated in the council.

“The need is there, the starting signs are good, but this council will stand and fall based on whether the Government actually wants to listen and has the bandwidth to implement change,” he concludes.

Talk is cheap, but action is priceless. The industry will be waiting to see whether the council can make things happen.