Andrew Vine: The rotten state of the high street and the need to support local shops

High streets face a bleak future unless urgent action is taken.
High streets face a bleak future unless urgent action is taken.
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THEY’RE like rotten teeth disfiguring the smile of welcome that Yorkshire’s towns and cities give residents and visitors – the ever-increasing number of empty shops.

Windows whitewashed, or covered over with newspapers, dirty and desolate, they are the symbols not only of street scenes changing for the worse, but of an uncertain retail environment that is costing the people who once worked in these shops their livelihoods.

I’m noticing more and more of these empty shops with each passing month. In Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Hull and Wakefield over the past few weeks, the rate of closures seems to be accelerating.

It isn’t just in the cities. There are gaps opening up in traditionally affluent towns like Harrogate and Ilkley too, as well as suburbs, like the parade close to my home where charity shops are the only takers for empty premises.

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There are few signs of the closures letting up. The plight of high streets was underlined at the end of last week by the last-minute rescue of House of Fraser from administration, which was welcome news even though how many of the stores survive – and staff keep their jobs – is unclear.

It isn’t only big names having trouble making the sums add up. Over the past few months, I’ve bade a sad farewell to a couple of independent food shops, the owners deciding to cut their losses because the combination of rent and business rates was too heavy a burden.

Those costs are elements of a perfect storm engulfing shopping streets, but the strongest headwind they face comes from online.

How many of those in retail – from a boss of a national chain, to a one-man-band artisan baker – must have thrown their hands up in despair at Amazon’s recent tax bill?

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Operating profits tripled to £79m and it posted revenues of almost £2bn. Yet its corporation tax bill fell by 38 per cent, and it paid only £1.7m.

All perfectly legal, of course. But legitimate doesn’t equate with fair when this online vampire is sucking the lifeblood out of our shopping streets, and paying proportionately far less in business rates for its out-of-town warehouses.

Nobody has yet really got to grips with the threat posed to high streets by internet shopping, not least the Inland Revenue, which appears to struggle to extract a fair measure from multinational corporations that can legally move funds around the world in order to minimise liability in individual countries.

Nor is there a level playing field on business rates which effectively put high streets at a disadvantage to retailers whose only shop front is a virtual one.

Action to save our shops is needed, and urgently. There is a real danger that over the next few years, once-thriving town and city centres in Yorkshire are going to suffer serious long-term damage if the relentless closures continue.

Empty shops drag areas down. They turn smart streets into shabby ones, and aggravate a cycle of decline that feeds on itself. The less attractive a shopping centre is, the fewer people who bother to come.

As footfall declines, so does trade, increasing the likelihood of more closures. That results in less choice for shoppers, who turn online instead.

It’s a major concern for local authorities, but they need help from the Government if anything is to be done to arrest – or reverse – the damage being done.

A rethink of the tax and rates regimes to give shops a fighting chance of competing on a fair basis with online retailers with far lower overheads would be a start.

This isn’t an issue that can be tackled piecemeal, but needs to be addressed as part of a wider strategy that has at its heart the importance of thriving shopping streets to the life of communities.

Hollowed-out town and city centres are bad for us all. For smaller places in particular, like the market towns across Yorkshire, the loss of shops mean lack of employment opportunities and the undermining of communities.

These are the places where people meet and get to know each other, the market squares which give towns their character and attract visitors who spend money, boosting the local economy.

Saving our shops isn’t only a matter for the Government. It’s one for consumers, too. I’ve cut down my online purchases, making a conscious decision to use shops instead, and I know increasing numbers of people who are doing the same.

The tide of online shopping can’t be turned back, but a lifeline can be thrown to high streets if we adopt a scaled-up version of the use-it-or-lose-it attitude that has saved so many village shops and post offices.

It may be marginally less convenient to pop into town than click on a link, but it’s a whole lot more convivial. And if it keeps shops open and their staff in jobs, it’s worth the effort.