AS the number of empty shops reaches its highest level since 2015, and official data shows that more than half of pensioners now shop online, the British Retail Consortium’s latest call for action is timely.
Its open letter to Chancellor Sajid Javid, calling for fundamental reform of “the broken rates system”, has been endorsed by, amongst others, Morrisons chief executive David Potts; Karen Hubbard who heads the Card Factory and Asda supremo Roger Burnley.
Together with dozens of other national retailers, they point out that inequities – first highlighted by the Love Your High Street campaign that The Yorkshire Post and sister titles ran last year – are making it harder for stores, large and small, to survive.
Even though the retail sector accounts for five per cent of the national economy, it is said to be responsible for a tenth of all business taxes and one quarter of all business rates – an imbalance which the Chancellor needs to recognise as he reconfigures the public finances to reflect the Government’s changing priorities and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
It can’t continue like this if even more high streets are not to become ghost towns. Instead of every empty shop unit being viewed with despair and a cost to the economy, it should be seen as an opportunity to attract a new venture – whether it be a traditional store, new business or home conversion – if both the rates system, and planning policies, are to better reflect society’s changing needs.
This needs to run in parallel with initiatives, tailor-made for the needs of each community, to promote local shops from niche campaigns to greater flexibility over parking. And while Mr Javid’s predecessor, Philip Hammond, did announce some interim measures in his last Budget, they did not provide the long-term changes that will put all high streets on a more sustainable footing.