Reports from eminent sources proffering views about what ails our High Streets and which ones have the most vacant premises have been abundant recently, but few have done more than regurgitate the same old issues. Most have been met with the usual hand wringing, finger pointing and the accompanying blame games that are played out in response to such reports. With perhaps the exception of the Mary Portas report, few if any have provided solutions. So what’s to be done?
No one in their right mind would profess to have all the answers to such a complex issue and in a short article I am certainly unable to provide more than a few pointers to gently stir the debate. However, it seems to me that to succeed in developing successful, financially sustainable High Streets one has to presuppose that we all, retailers, central government, local authorities and the local community alike, do not merely want our High Streets to be successful but are also prepared to play their part. Without their explicit and active support no improvement will be achieved. Each and every party has to play its part and be willing to do what it takes.
Central Government could start by increasing business rate relief for smaller retailers and by encouraging local authorities to introduce local retail plans. Local Authorities might look at introducing ‘managed retail space’ at low ‘easy in easy out’ rents; something that might also have some impact on the unsustainable rent increases many small retailers seem to be facing; and, above all, review what they can do to improve the ‘shopping experience’ of customers. In the longer term they must also develop imaginative local retail plans that go way beyond maintaining the status quo and which include a thorough review of parking policies. Simply putting saving our High Streets in ‘the too difficult tray’ and forgetting about them is not an option.
High Streets need to be attractive, vibrant places they are also, like any other business areas, subject to changing trends and practices; this reality has to be reflected in any planning, it also needs to be accepted by retailers and other interested stakeholders. Today’s customer demands, convenience, quality and high service levels, all at the right price, it is essential that this is recognised by all concerned. Today’s customer has more choice than at any time in our history as time goes by the changes brought about by the ‘internet age’ will not diminish.
So to the other important player the local community or, if you prefer, the customers, what is their role in all this. Arguably, they are simply there to be served according to their needs and I for one would defend to the death their right to choose but, ultimately, without their patronage our High Streets are not sustainable. To coin a phrase they need to ‘use them or lose them’.
We have some wonderful High Streets which, if my supposition is correct we would all like to see maintained and sustained. Collectively we need to support them, we all have a part to play.