In Wood Green, my local shopping centre, what was the BHS is now a Poundworld – and like BHS, it’s also destined for closure after collapsing into administration.
A few doors down, what used to be Marks & Spencer – it shut in 2015 – is now a cheap market hall where traders hawk their wares, while around about other shops stand empty.
The area was once seen as a pioneering retail location – the Queen opened what was then called Shopping City back in 1981.
“Both The Daily Mail and the Mirror launched ‘save the high street’ campaigns this week”
Now, although Shopping City’s successor The Mall does a pretty good job and big names such as Primark draw shoppers in their droves, the town centre in general has seen better days.
It is not alone. Indicative of how the health of town centres and the crushing burden of business rates is once again rocketing up the public agenda as retailers collapse, both The Daily Mail and the Mirror launched ‘save the high street’ campaigns this week.
And today brought the publication of the Grimsey Review 2, in which the former Wickes, Focus DIY and Iceland chief executive revisited the plight of the high street and made suggestions to improve it.
An enhanced role for local authorities was at the heart of his proposals. That sounds sensible, and there are instances around the country where good work is being done - Stockton-on-Tees is one example given where the issue is being confronted with real energy.
But the example of Wood Green serves as a warning that it may often be more easily said than done.
Haringey, the North London borough that includes Wood Green, had big regeneration plans which it aimed to deliver in partnership with developer Lendlease.
However, the proposals, many of which were good, whipped up a storm of controversy that resulted in the ousting of the council leader and a Momentum ‘coup’ in the ruling Labour group.
At the heart of the row was not so much shopping but housing, also a feature of the Grimsey Review in recognition of the fact that, as retail becomes less of a feature on high streets, other uses must be developed.
Haringey is the 13th-poorest borough in the UK, and the extent to which social housing would be provided through the regeneration scheme became the touchpaper that set the whole thing alight.
As the future of town centres once again takes centre stage, similar, although perhaps less dramatic, dynamics are likely to play out elsewhere. Retail will potentially become a casualty of other debates raging in society and the ideological clashes that now characterise politics on the left and right alike.
All of this is not to write off Grimsey’s review. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he deserves credit for putting forward ideas and contributing to the debate.
But given the difficulties that local authorities face in winning backing for change programmes, including the sheer amount of time it takes, retailers need to take as much action as they can themselves with all suitable partners.
“The Government has shown no interest in rates reform. Perhaps it is time for retailers to turn their attention to constituency MPs”
Some of the best suggestions in Grimsey’s review are along such lines – better sharing of best practice and success stories including through online portals, the establishment of common key performance indicators, more flexible planning rules and digital initiatives that complement the appeal of places are all good ideas.
As, of course, is recognition that the business rates regime is long past its sell-by date. Grimsey once again suggests its replacement with a fairer alternative.
But the Government has shown no interest in rates reform. Perhaps it is time for retailers to turn their attention not to the ministries that have turned a deaf ear to the issue, but to constituency MPs.
It is in the constituencies that town centre job losses and gap-toothed high streets make an impact, and it’s their voters to whom MPs will listen.
Maybe an industry rates campaign on that level would make more of an impact than traipsing on another fruitless mission to the meeting rooms of Westminster.
- By the way, the latest Wood Green regeneration controversy has echoes of one in the 1970s. There’s a fascinating Pathe video on YouTube about it – interesting alone for all the high street names from years gone by.
Forget Westminster, save the high street at local level
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Opinion: Forget Westminster, save the high street at local level