Britain’s high streets are in trouble and the government has asked celebrity retail expert Mary Portas to investigate ways to rejuvenate them. If it is to be effective the review needs to consider access, diversity and participation on the high street – and in particular, how to promote the needs of independent traders and local consumers. Both of these will be key to building a sustainable future for our high streets as both retail destinations and public hubs of community activity.
The financial burden can be a barrier to success for small independent retailers. Creating the environment for financial arrangements that ease this burden is likely to lead to more positive outcomes. Business rates for SMEs need to be kept low and reform of upward-only rent reviews (which have recently been banned in Ireland) is widely considered to be a necessary step to encouraging start-ups and enterprise even among some big retailers. Phillip Blond’sResPublica argues that taxes on out-of-town shops should be levied in order to ease business rates for locals and independents in town.
Improved pedestrian access and the creation of Shared Street schemes have been shown to reduce traffic accidents, as well as fostering a greater sense of public participation and common ownership of the high street. Such moves have been successful in Cambridge, and the redesign of Kensington High Street has been similarly well regarded .
The high street has the potential to offer diversity and specialisation which large chains cannot. But even the existing diversity of the UK high street remains particularly fragile. A recent NEF report found that 41% of towns surveyed were ‘clone towns’, dominated by a majority of large chain stores, compared to 36% with a healthy level of local and independent business, and 23% on the border between the two. In the face of the current slowdown in consumer spending, this leaves many high streets particularly vulnerable to commercial flight. When demand drops, the large chains have little difficulty in closing up and moving on, leaving almost 15% of high street retail units empty.
Money spent locally is more likely to be re-circulated in the local economy, making local and independent traders vital for economic resilience. Areas like the North-East, where consumer spending will grow far more slowly than in the South and in London, are particularly at risk here. Loyalty schemes which encourage consumers to spend their money in independent businesses are growing in popularity around the UK and offer a means by which to encourage recirculation of local spending. The Wedgecard in Bloomsbury, and the loyalty card scheme in Penzance, for example, use financial incentives to tap into locals’ desire to support independent and community enterprise. Local currency plans have taken root in areas like Brixton, Lewes and Totnes in the UK, and are growing in Europe, China and America. These have been more successful in already affluent areas and they do require a great deal of community effort to begin with. Nevertheless, support from policy makers and local government such as tax incentives for developing and participating in localisation schemes, may offer an innovative means to help to reinvigorate the retail offer – particularly in deprived areas.
The Association of Convenience Stores and other retail groups have argued that small businesses should have greater power to intervene in their local planning process to ensure a health environment for local retail to flourish. An amendment to the Localism Bill, announced last week, would appear to go some way towards this. ResPublica suggests that communities should have the right to appeal against planning decisions and that a community interest clause should be introduced into completion law. But the NEF goes further in its report, by arguing that indicators of distinctiveness, well-being and sustainability should be written into planning procedures, alongside mechanisms to make local residents equal partners and the establishment of a national Local Competition Ombudsman, to regulate the big four supermarket chains. They also support the trend of community buyouts of cornershops, pubs and petrol stations, as well as the growth in power of Community Land Trusts in high street property. CLTs in areas such as Brixton, where the rate of vacancies is especially high, help communities to take control of commercial property that they would not otherwise be able to afford access to. Community access such as this allows small and independent business to get a foothold in the local retail market.
The government will face some serious challenges in revitalising the high street, which are linked to many of the wider economic challenges that the UK faces. However, while the high street is vitally important in economic terms, it also holds a great deal of public value as a community space where citizens interact and engage with one another. It will be vital to embrace the impulse towards localism and community activism that thrives in many towns, and utilise it to positive effect. In that sense the review represents an opportunity to encourage community use of public space and empower citizens to embrace and defend both the commercial and public value of their local area.