TODAY’S REPORT on the number of store closures across Yorkshire confirms what this newspaper, and many others, have been arguing for many months – urgent action is needed to save our high streets.
Even before Debenhams entered pre-pack administration, the findings by leading accountants PwC are stark. There are now 167 fewer shops in this region compared to 12 months ago – and this rate of decline is now at a five-year high despite taking into account new store openings.
Only Huddersfield appears to be bucking the trend while Hessle Road, Hull, and Grimsby recorded no change in their total number of shops according to this report which, in normal times, would serve as a sharp wake-up call to the Government.
Yet, while Chancellor Philip Hammond did bow to public and political pressure by making an additional £1.5bn available in his last full Budget, it will take time for this money to filter down to local communities for specific schemes because this one of those policy instances where the Government, and its partners, only work at two speeds – slow and very slow.
And this was self-evident when MPs questioned Mel Stride, a junior Treasury Minister, on the need to reform business rates in order to create a more level playing field between traditional retailers and those online giants which now find themselves at a huge financial advantage.
In his response, Mr Stride suggested changes could be introduced by 2024. Yes, that is five years away.
Perhaps the Minister should focus more on the day job – and devote less time to running Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s burgeoning campaign for the Tory leadership.
For, unless the Government acts now, many more independent shops – the lifeblood of Yorkshire’s high streets – will be forced to shut by 2024 at a time when the Treasury should be working with local councils, and others, to accelerate policies to support stores, and also finding purposeful new uses for those buildings which already stand empty. Not to do so would, in itself, be a false economy, a point Mr Stride clearly needs to heed before it is too late.