I GUESS Ed Miliband has to be applauded for even attempting to enter the debate over the nation’s beleaguered high streets. At the launch of Labour’s local government election campaign, he vowed to crack down on payday lenders and other opportunist outfits which can bring down a row of empty shops overnight.
His aim is noble, but I wish him luck getting that one past council planning departments and commercial landlords. As long as they get their rent, they don’t care who is in the shop.
If the high street was an ideal world, we wouldn’t have payday lenders or pawnbrokers or takeaways or tattoo shops. We would have coffee shops and florists and nice little bakers selling fresh-made bread. None of us live in Toytown though.
In most places, we have to put up with what turns up. And these days, there is a strong argument for supporting any business brave enough to take on a lease; at least it means one less building standing empty, falling into rack and ruin.
I fear though that Mr Miliband has mixed together two points which would be better dealt with separately. Payday lenders should be kept in check, to prevent vulnerable individuals being sucked into an endless spiral of debt. However, what to do about “the high street”, for which read also “town centre” and “any parade of shops”, is much more complex.
In an age when we can order everything from our groceries to DVDs at the touch of a smartphone button, it requires an honest reappraisal of what the high street is actually for. And in turn, this requires some consistent strategic thinking on how local and central government can make an impact to halt the decline.
If a Labour government was to be returned to power, there are plans to create a new type of business class to allow local councils to place certain premises in a special planning category.
Theoretically, this would empower town halls to restrict the proliferation of the “wrong kind of shops”, but it is a very long way off.
Action is needed now. If Mr Miliband is serious about trying to help the high street, and not just coming up with ideas he thinks will win grass roots votes, I have some suggestions for him.
First of all, he has got to welcome the car. One of the main reasons why people head for the out-of-town mall instead of the high street is because they can park for free. Nothing puts a shopper off more than the cost of parking and the threat of a traffic warden hell-bent on raising council revenue through the draconian issuing of parking tickets.
Mr Miliband should support local councils in developing funding models which don’t rely on car-parking charges to provide a cash-cow, perhaps allowing free parking after 3pm and at weekends.
Also, the onus should be put on large retailers to invest some of their profits in creating free or cheap car-parking when they build a new store; they want the customers, the customers want parking, the town needs anyone who is coming in to spend money. It’s a win-win situation, and it helps to take the pressure off impoverished councils.
Then he needs to think about what empty shops are actually for. Some of them are large, cavernous spaces, but they are flexible. Instead of spending millions on building new doctor’s surgeries, instead of closing the library and offering no replacement, those in charge of such decisions should be encouraged to look to what already exists and think about whether it can be re-used or recycled.
Similarly, when the debate turns to where the millions of new homes we need are going to come from, planners should be persuaded to give every serious consideration to urban sites. In this, local councils have to be bold, and not cling onto the concept of potential “business use” at the expense of residential development. If there is no clear and immediate need for that derelict bed-shop or electrical store, wouldn’t it be better off demolished and flats and houses, either for sale or rental, built in its place?
Again, this is a win-win situation, because new homes bring people right into the heart of towns, instead of isolating them on the fringes at the mercy of the car and inadequate local bus services. It also, potentially, supports new retail development, because new urban residents require local shops and services at hand.
These are just a few thoughts, but they represent the scale of the revolution required. I hope that Mr Miliband is brave enough to take it all on board, because it is a balancing act which cannot be achieved with a few policy announcements. It requires a whole root-and-branch rethink of retail in this country, and it would be implemented not with television-friendly sound-bites, but through the long slog of council committees, public consultation and legislation change.