GP Taylor: The high street is finished – it’s time for change and start by moving larger retailers out of town

IN the deepest, darkest depths of Rotherham there is a shop that you enter at your peril. Packed with potions and spells, Grimm & Co, makes Diagon Alley look like Primark.

What is the best use of buildings in town and city centres as the future of high streets comes into the spotlight?

This apothecary is an adventure in shopping and a delight to young and old, a must visit for anyone interested in the unusual. It is also the hub of a charitable creative writing project that helps children throughout the county. It is more than a shop, but an enjoyable, wonderful and creative adventure that is the future of our town centres.

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As people turn from high street shopping to buy off the internet, Grimm & Co offer the adventurous entrepreneur the opportunity to do something similar and offer the customer experience shopping. Not just a shop, but an adventure to be enjoyed time and time again.

For as more and more people abandon the high street and shops close, the towns in our county need new initiatives.

Let’s face it. Buying anything is far easier online. I no longer have to go in to a shop and come out disappointed that they do not have my size, colour or style. I recently bought a winter coat that came all the way from China. It was hand-made and a perfect fit.

Everything for life can be bought online and, for some, it is physical town centre shopping that is unusual. For millennials, their first port of call is the internet and older generations are following their example.

Year by year, online shopping has risen to the current rate of nearly 20 per cent with around £1.2bn being spent every week. Some estimates say that by 2023 this will increase so 40 per cent of all shopping will be done on the internet, with 51 per cent of Americans saying they prefer to shop online. Shopping via the internet has become simple, convenient and practical.

So, where does this leave the good old British high street?

Since the 1800s, people have always bemoaned the change in shopping practices. It wasn’t long ago that hands were held up in horror at the death of the village shop and post office. Yet life went on and people adapted.

Historically, many of our high streets haven’t always been filled with shops. All you have to do is look up and see that a lot are converted houses. Bar Street and York Place in Scarborough are fine examples of this. Once glorious houses, turned into run of the mill and out-of-place shop fronts. My daughters had a café that was housed in a building that – in its Victorian heyday – was a house of ill-repute.

It’s no good just blaming the internet. Other factors are responsible for killing off shops. Council rates are being pushed higher and higher. The minimum wage and enforced pension regulations hinder flexible employment and deter business owners from expanding. Link that with a crippling rate of VAT and it is a disastrous recipe for the British high street.

In many towns, more and more shops are closing and not being replaced. In 2018, it is estimated that around 18,000 shops closed in the UK with a loss of 50,000 jobs. According to The Centre for Retail Research, 2019 looks to be much worse with nearly 160,000 jobs lost as 22,000 shops close.

We have to accept that there is too much retail space and an alternative use has to be found.

The high street is beyond saving in its current form and should be allowed to die, with big name stores retreating to the safety of out-of-town shopping malls.

Former shops should be turned back into housing. Ugly buildings like Debenhams in Scarborough could be torn down and replaced with a more sympathetic and pleasing skyline.

Local councils should stop treating shops as a cash cow. Rates are meant to be fair and not punitive. Licensing laws should be reformed to stop town centre nightclubs opening after 2am, which would allow local pubs to have a slice of the market and keep their doors open as community hubs.

New start-ups should be encouraged with VAT, rent and rate breaks.

Entrepreneurs who offer experience shopping should be encouraged to open up in town centres. Customers now want something more than just an ability to buy an item.

Many want to have felt that they have been served and looked after by the shopkeeper who wants to meet their needs and make them feel valued and special customers. The age of the grumpy, don’t give a damn shopkeeper is well and truly over.

We, as consumers, have to promise to shop locally for a higher percentage of our goods and resist the temptation of an easy buy on the internet.

Shop owners have to make their businesses interesting to the customer so that going through the door is an enjoyable experience.

If nothing is done, all we will find on the high street will be charity shops, hairdressers and coffee shops.

GP Taylor is an author and broadcaster. He lives in Whitby.