Rate of return for high streets

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THE importance of the high street to the wider UK economy is illustrated by this compelling statistic, one that policy-makers neglect at their peril. Shops are still the largest private sector employer in the country and still account for three million jobs despite the advent of online deliveries.

THE importance of the high street to the wider UK economy is illustrated by this compelling statistic, one that policy-makers neglect at their peril. Shops are still the largest private sector employer in the country and still account for three million jobs despite the advent of online deliveries.

It is a powerful piece of evidence that underpins today’s Parliamentary report which concludes that the current system of business rates is not fit for purpose and needs radical reform if stores, particularly cherished independent shops, are to enjoy better survival prospects.

If rates were linked to the number of transactions undertaken, rather than the rateable value of the property in question, MPs argue – with justification – that it would help those small shops who are unfairly penalised by the existing arrangements. There is another advantage that should be acknowledged – such a model would, inevitably, lead to more money being paid by those companies, like Starbucks, Amazon and Vodafone, who have been adept at exploiting other tax loopholes in order to minimise their obligations.

Yet is the Government truly committed to supporting the high street? Ministers say they are, and David Cameron recruited retail guru Mary Portas amid great fanfare, but it is becoming clear that this amounted to tokenism and MPs are now demanding to know why there’s no evidence to show the £2.3m allocated to the so-called Portas Pilots has actually been spent. It is a question which needs answering as a matter of urgency.

However, two other points need to be made. First, high street shops need public support if they’re to remain open. It’s no good shopping online, or driving to an out-of-town mall, and then complaining when a store has been forced to shut because of insufficient custom.

Second, the worst possible advertisement for any community is a row of empty shops and today’s report by the Future Spaces Foundation into the prospects of Barnsley could not be more timely.

If rules can be relaxed so empty units can be opened into centres and facilities for young people, the dividend could be a considerable one – for the youngsters, the landlords and, most crucially of all, the local community.

The rail reality

HS2 offers unrivalled opportunity

OPPONENTS who say the £42.6bn allocated for HS2 should be spent on other improvements to the rail network are likely to be disappointed – this is not how the Treasury operates.

Contrary to popular perception, there is not

a single pot of money set aside for Britain’s high-speed rail revolution. It will see funds released annually to cover construction costs as they are incurred over two decades, and this is the means by which London’s Crossrail scheme is being financed.

It also minimises the Treasury’s debt interest charges – another key consideration at a time of belt-tightening across the public sector.

Yet, in many respects,

the call for the HS2 money to be reallocated is a legacy of the failure of the Government, and others, to be clearer on the benefits of high-speed rail – and how a new route remains the best of means of increasing capacity on the existing network which was built in the Victorian era.

To Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s credit, he has been far clearer than others in highlighting the benefits of HS2 and pointing out that it is not just about faster trains.

However, Mr McLoughlin cannot do this alone. He needs the help of civic leaders in those cities, like Leeds and Sheffield, which will be served by high-speed rail.

As such, it is welcome that the Leeds City Region will promote investment opportunities allied to HS2 at a major property conference in Cannes, France, next week.

Compared to cities like Birmingham and Manchester that have embraced HS2, Leeds Council has been almost embarrassed to highlight the development and regeneration opportunities, a reluctance which only serves to strengthen the

case of those opposed to high-speed rail.

Victims first

A police log book with a difference

IF websites can be used for families to track the progress parcels or monitor food deliveries, why can’t the same principle be applied

to key public services?

Shaun Wright, South Yorkshire’s crime commissioner, says there is no reason why this practice cannot be applied to crimes as his force unveils a TrackMyCrime initiative.

The idea is a simple one: victims of crime will be able to log-on and receive real-time updates on how their case is progressing.

The logic is sound, given the embarrassing number of instances when the aggravation caused by the actual crime has been compounded by the failure of the police to keep victims informed about the progress of the case in question.

However, two caveats are required. First this scheme will only command confidence if it is taken seriously by each and every one of the officers tasked with providing computer updates. Second, Mr Wright needs to ensure his “victims first” approach to crime-fighting extends to those people, like the elderly, who might not have online access. They, too, have rights.