What’s the point of having leaders if they don’t lead? Our Government has not solved the problems facing the industry so bosses must speak up.

In a company the board is appointed to exercise leadership, make key decisions about the future of the business, and take responsibility for those decisions afterwards – though some chief executives and directors don’t seem to have read as far as that last one. 

If a board kept ducking big decisions because it thought they were too difficult, the shareholders wouldn’t be long in replacing it.

So how about governments then?

I came back recently from a short visit abroad and experienced the dystopian nightmare that is Heathrow Airport, now overcrowded to the point of collapse. 

It reminded me (again) of the extraordinary and continuing failure of successive governments in the UK to tackle long-term airport planning, something that is vital to the future success of business in this country. 

In our European competitor countries this was tackled 30 or 40 years ago.

Sunday trading

When I got home, I saw the Retail Week headline about Sunday trading confusion, and the potential chaos of having different rules in every local council area in Britain. 

Our rules for Sundays have been confusing to retailers and customers alike, since the last reform tried to placate everyone and pleased no-one; now another ducking of a clear decision by government could create a complete mess.

The slow, sad decay of our secondary and tertiary shopping streets into shuttered ghettos is another example.

“Tying business rates at a really high level to the current retail use designation is a way to ensure nothing is changed”

Simon Burke, Bathstore

For years we have seen this coming, and beyond appointing a couple of high-profile personalities to produce wizard solutions, which predictably sank without trace, what have our leaders done? 

I am not suggesting that the Government could arrest the decline of traditional shopping in these locations. 

In fact, I don’t think anyone can stop it; major economic and social forces are at work and these are usually irresistible over time. 

But what we are doing nationally is simply denying the nature of the problem, when we should instead be thinking about how these spaces can be re-used in a way that fits lifestyles and needs today.

Tying business rates at a really high level to the current retail use designation is a way to ensure nothing is changed.

Fear of unpopularity

Recently I had a thought-provoking conversation with a colleague who pointed out that we have, simultaneously, a surplus of large supermarkets and an acute shortage of affordable housing. 

Couldn’t one easily be demolished to build the other? In a truly free market, this is probably what would happen. But in this case, zoning policy and the business rates factor will get in the way.

These are all examples of cases where the country’s leadership could intervene, make clear decisions, and sort out some serious national issues.

But the fear of noisy minorities, or even momentary unpopularity, seems to weigh more heavily than the prospect of long-term benefit.

These are also all cases where retailers are affected. We’re a big part of the economy. Could we be doing more to get these decisions properly taken?

  • Simon Burke is chairman of Bathstore