Our high streets are dying, the empty shops with their shutters daubed in graffiti telling a story of once-vibrant areas in danger of terminal decline.
The shift to online shopping coupled with lost trade during Covid lockdowns pose an existential threat to the traditional shopping street, and unless urgent action is taken to give retailers a fighting chance against internet giants, whole communities will be blighted.
Walk around any town or city centre, and the urgency of the SOS call is plain to see in the spiral of decline.
Of our cities, to me Bradford and Sheffield show the most obvious signs of distress, with the number of empty shops increasing every time I visit. Of the towns, Huddersfield and Scarborough seem to be suffering particularly badly.
None of this is the fault of the councils responsible for them, nor of the traders striving to make a living when they know to their cost that customers who once walked through the doors are now at home surfing for the lowest prices.
The fault lies with a tax regime that has failed to keep pace with changing trends in the way people shop and successive governments which have been too timid to address it.
The result is that retailers have been placed at a grossly unfair disadvantage to their online rivals. How shockingly unjust this is was highlighted yesterday by a real estate advisory firm, Altus Group, which found traditional retailers now pay a staggering 755 per cent more in business rates than internet traders.
If such a disparity was to be found in any other area of business, there would rightly be an outcry and demands for emergency measures by the Government.
But when it comes to retail, the unfairness has simply become accepted as a fact of life. Meanwhile, shop after shop closes as the life is drained from high streets by faceless competition.
Belatedly, the Government has woken up to this threat to the very fabric of our communities. Its consultation on the introduction of a tax on online commerce closed on Friday. Opinion amongst the big retail players is mixed. Sainsbury’s is in favour of the new tax, but M&S is against it, with its chief executive, Steve Rowe, saying at the weekend that it would be “morally bankrupt”.
Sorry, Mr Rowe, but you’re wrong. The only bankruptcies at stake here are those of hard-working business owners, especially the independents and family firms that traditionally are the heart and soul of high streets. They don’t have the deep pockets of M&S or the support of banks prepared to see a national chain through a rocky patch. For the smaller shops, the equation is simple – no customers and no income equals no future. It would be a betrayal of Yorkshire communities for the Government to allow the decline of traditional retail to continue.
In the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, there was some acknowledgement that help is needed, with an announcement that councils would be given powers to compel landlords to let empty premises, but that does not go anything like far enough.
Taxing online sales is long overdue, and the Government should not dither any longer about doing it and using the proceeds to reduce the burden of business rates on bricks-and-mortar retailers. But it should also go further and finally get to grips with the paltry amounts of tax paid by the biggest online sellers, especially Amazon. For years now, it has been apparent that this company – using perfectly legal means – has not been paying anything like enough on what it makes in Britain.
Time to ensure it does, and use that money to support shopping streets. Besides reducing the business tax burden, a proportion should go towards making parking easier and cheaper in town and city centres to encourage customers back in.
The urgency of doing so cannot be overstated. It is a task that becomes harder with every shop that closes, because the loss of each makes its high street that little bit less attractive.
Less choice means fewer customers, which saps the passing trade for the businesses that remain open. It is a drip-drip effect that can only be stopped by radical action to create fairer competition between online shops and those employing staff to serve customers.
The Government cannot stand by and allow the decline in high streets to continue. They are much more than places to shop for what we need.
Our shopping streets are the heartbeat of communities, especially in the smaller market towns which Yorkshire has in abundance, places where people meet and socialise. Nor can we have our cities blighted and sinking into dereliction, with whole streets where there are only a few shops left clinging on. The distress call going out from high streets must be answered by the Government.