Scottish retail experts have warned that Scotland could be left behind as a UK government committee unveiled a raft of reforms which could revolutionise the future of the high street south of the border.
A report published today by the housing, communities and local government committee at Westminster said that dated policies and an unfair tax regime must be reformed to allow high streets and town centres to flourish in the future and warned that the high street’s main function “primarily as a retail hub” was “at an end”.
Reforms being considered include proposals for an online sales tax to “level the playing field” between internet and traditional retailers and central government funding for local authorities to create detailed plans setting out the future direction of their towns and high streets.
It also said the government should consider a sales tax, an increase in VAT and “green taxes” on deliveries and packaging.
However, Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, said that the reforms could leave England “stealing a march over Scotland”, which has previously been regarded as a pioneer in revolutionising the high street. He said: “The rates issue is the elephant in the room and needs to be grasped. Any policy needs to be done across the UK. If this went ahead, there would be too much at risk for Scotland to be a lone wolf in all of this.”
Scotland has previously led the way in attempts to transform its town centres, including a wide-ranging report carried out by architect Malcolm Fraser in 2013, which recommended bringing non-retail such as leisure and residential buildings back to Scotland’s high streets. A £50 million town centres fund was part of the recent Scottish Budget.
Leigh Sparks, professor of retail at Stirling University, said: “The proposals they are putting forward are all things that Scotland could do. The problem for Scotland is that if England is to put a lot of money into this, their towns and high streets could look more attractive than here.”
In the report, committee chair Clive Betts said: “In recent years, high streets and town centres have faced extremely challenging times. We have seen the collapse of a number of well-known, national high street chains, with many more undergoing restructuring or being bought out. The growth of online shopping has profoundly changed retail in the UK, and the knock-on impact on high streets has been stark.
“It is likely that the heyday of the high street primarily as a retail hub is at an end. However, this need not be its death knell. Local authorities must get to grips with the fact that their town centres need to change; they need to innovate, setting out a long-term strategy for renewal, reconfiguring the town centre and finding new ways of using buildings and encouraging new independent retailers.”
He added: “We must begin a period of renewal and regeneration, establishing high streets as focal points of our communities comprising green space and health, education and leisure services, as well as a core of retail.
At a local and national level, government must create a framework that allows high streets and town centres to thrive. Local authorities must have the foresight to develop evolving strategies tailored to the needs of their local communities and drive the large-scale transformation needed. Central government must give them the powers, and back them financially, to allow them to put this into practice.”
The report said that local authority plans should consider green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care services to create space that is the “intersection of human life and activity”.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to supporting town centres face the challenge of changing and evolving retail patterns. That is why we have announced a £50 million capital Town Centre Fund to enable local authorities to stimulate and support place-based economic investments which encourage town centres to diversify and flourish, creating footfall through local improvements and partnerships.
“This is part of a wider boost to the economy which includes £5 billion capital investment to grow and modernise Scotland’s infrastructure, as well as a wider package of support for businesses.”
She added: “We provide the most generous package of non-domestic rates reliefs anywhere in the UK – worth an estimated £750 million in 2019-20, up from £732 million in 2018-19. This includes the Small Business Bonus Scheme, which is more generous than any of the equivalent schemes elsewhere in the UK.”