The demise of Arcadia and Debenhams have fuelled the debate in recent weeks, with the irony that ASOS has bought much of Sir Philip Green’s former empire including TopShop and TopMan, whilst Boohoo has bought Debenhams and other remnants of Arcadia.
UK retail giants like John Lewis are struggling badly, too, with recent store closures announced in Sheffield and York. For many businesses, big and small, the impact of multiple lockdowns has been too much to contend with.
How could they cope, with footfall down 90 per cent year-on-year in Central London and the picture not much better in our big regional cities and towns? Successive governments have had years to review one of the main causes of bricks and mortar retailers’ demise – our antiquated rating system – and the inequalities ingrained in real estate – so far without any meaningful action.
The epidemic has fast tracked what was already happening. Government must now stimulate a call to arms to repurpose our high streets across the nation.
This is my 10-point plan to revive our high streets:
1. Dedicated time, money and expertise. Billions are needed, not small handouts – it would be wise to heed that the property crash and banking crisis that could follow if our high streets are allowed to fall apart will cost a lot more in the long term.
2. Create a series of blueprints across the country, for towns to learn from each other.
3. Level up the costs of occupation – to just make them fair; the rating system has long been outdated, while council tax must also be revisited – once again with fairness in mind.
4. Create a faster planning environment, supporting entre-preneurialism and innovation.
5. Identify, stress test and set out the options for a range of uses to be promoted in our revitalised high streets. To make this real, introduce greater flexibility in the planning system and focus on the creation of more homes of all types.
6. Get this right and more people will move to town centres, more will use currently vacant or obsolete properties, more income will be introduced, more tax paid and more demand for high-street uses will be stimulated.
7. Promote the benefits of living in town centres – for families and older people, not just younger people: inter-generational living is a great concept growing around the world.
8. Place a special emphasis upon the creation of truly affordable homes.
9. Ensure leisure, wellbeing, retail, food and beverage all have a place – confidence in these sectors must be restored after a year in hibernation.
10. Manage pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles – don’t just ban vehicles because lots of people like the elderly and families with small children need them to get around.