High street plans are great but who pays?

MARY PORTAS, the self-styled Queen of Shops, recently defended her 2011 report on the future of Britain’s high streets in front of the Westminster select committee for the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Self-styled 'Queen of Shops' Mary Portas. Picture: Jane Barlow
Self-styled 'Queen of Shops' Mary Portas. Picture: Jane Barlow

Two days later, Bill Grimsey, former chief executive of Wickes and Iceland, published his “alternative review” of the high street in which he declared that the Portas Review “promised the earth but delivered little”. Understandably, this resulted in a war of words between the two retail gurus – but do we really need yet more rhetoric on the issues facing Britain’s high streets? Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

Although Grimsey’s review is focused on England and Wales, many of the ideas could make their way into the Scottish Government’s action plan for town centres, which is due to be published shortly.

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With 31 recommendations – four more than Mary Portas – there is much to applaud in Bill Grimsey’s review. He suggests changes to business rates. He would like free parking in town centres. He believes that there is a future for the high street – but is it already too late? The one thing both he and the Queen of Shops agree on is that high streets must change and there is no place for nostalgia. They are not at odds in many of their respective recommendations.

Many traditional retailers were too slow to react to online shopping. The collapse of HMV and Blockbuster showed that what we buy and how we buy it has changed forever. Why go out to buy a CD or DVD when you’ve got both to download at your fingertips?

The retail market itself has changed. Successful retailers know how to make the high street and the i-street work together – Argos is the third biggest online retailer in the UK while Next, John Lewis and Tesco join it in the top ten. Recommendations which focus on saving the high street miss the point. Retail is multi-channel, both bricks and clicks.

Grimsey talks about turning high streets into communities, as did Mary Portas. They both agree that high streets must be places people want to use – to shop, to eat, to meet, and even to live. But living above a bookies or a chippy in an empty, unloved high street has limited appeal. Entire areas need to be regenerated, not just one-off buildings or streets.

Without direction, high streets won’t change. One of the fundamental pitfalls in both reports is the emphasis placed on local authorities to engage in the process and drive change. They simply do not have the manpower or financial resources to commit to this.

Grimsey recommends “town centre commissions” made up of key stakeholders varying from retailers to developers. He wants to see the initiative trialled in five towns by the end of this year. These commissions bear strong resemblance to the Portas “town teams” and the “Portas Pilots” which were criticised by MPs last week for not producing any results.

Grimsey’s most eye-catching proposal is the recommendation that large retailers and pub owners pay a one-off tax to help raise £550 million, creating a local economic development fund to support smaller retailers and start-ups.

Using the tax system to help start-ups is a great idea, but why does it automatically mean that taxes must increase? Why not reduce them? The Scottish Government already has the power to vary business rates, which they could turn on its head to allow exemptions for start-up companies. This would encourage and support new retailers, without punishing existing retailers simply for being “big”.

One key question remains unanswered from the Grimsey review – how will the high street’s transformation be supported by tangible government commitment? Without financial support, many of the plans lack real substance.

Implementing these recommendations will require partnering and investment on a huge scale, and the government must act to ensure effectiveness in this. The Fraser Review in Scotland provided some guidance on how the Scottish Government may choose to act, but the proof will be in real-life initiatives, support and decisive action which will hopefully be unveiled by the Scottish Government.

• Deborah Wales is a partner in the real estate team in Glasgow for law firm Dundas & Wilson, www.dundas-wilson.com