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Comment: It's time for action on the high street

Emily Sutherland

Drapers’ Emily Sutherland questions whether reviews, inquiries and panels really represent the best route forward for the high street.

high street

Turmoil on the high street has brought with it a slew of reviews, panels and inquiries, all promising to dig deep into the challenges facing retailers. High-profile closures and administrations across the industry have reinforced existing concerns that the country’s retail centres can no longer meet customers’ needs. The market is tough and the instinct to find a definitive answer to the high street’s woes is a natural one.

In May, the housing, communities and local government committee launched an inquiry into what high streets and town centres will look like in 2020. Led by Labour MP Clive Betts, it will examine the future role of the high street in contributing to the local economy, and whether councils have the planning, licensing and tax-raising tools necessary to help local areas flourish.

July brought the publication of retail veteran Bill Grimsey’s second review into Britain’s town centres. The “high street tsar” argued that town centres need to become community hubs if they are to survive.

The review was quickly followed by news of yet another panel, this time led by Sir John Timpson, chairman of dry cleaner and shoe repair retailer Timpson, who has been appointed by the government to glean what shoppers really want from their high streets.

There is no doubt that these inquiries and reviews have good intentions. But is more discussion really the answer the high street needs? Attempts to uncover what ails the nation’s town centres are nothing new and the industry has seen it all before. Retail consultant and self-proclaimed queen of shops Mary Portas was enlisted by the government to conduct an independent review into the health of the high street in 2011. The resulting Portas Review made 25 recommendations, including improving business rates for independents and disincentivising landlords from leaving shops empty. Most of these fell on deaf ears.

Twelve towns – ranging from Liskeard in Cornwall to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in Northumberland – were awarded a share of a £1.2m grant in 2012 as part of a government-backed programme introduced in the wake of the Portas Review. Five years on, and research from the Local Data Company commissioned at the end of last year found that “Portas Pilot” towns had lost 17% of their shops.

Some recommendations from the first Grimsey Review, published in 2013, have borne fruit, although the report raised concerns about the business rates system that are still being repeated four years on.

Retailers reiterated concerns about the rates system in the wake of the second Grimsey report, arguing that the government is failing to face up to the problem. The retail sector faces a £194.2m rise in its rate bills next April, predicts property services firm Altus Group, but there seems little appetite from the government for change.

In the wake of controversial retail tycoon Mike Ashley’s takeover of struggling department store House of Fraser, there is also the growing question of whether the law should be changed to protect suppliers. Administrator EY has said the amounts owed to unsecured credits – which include suppliers and landlords – will not be paid, and only £600,000 is available to be distributed among all the unsecured creditors under insolvency legislation.

The challenges facing the UK high street are no secret. Reviews are all well and good, but retailers have raised the same concerns time and time again, yet they continue to be ignored. Decisive government action with long-lasting consequences is what is really needed to help the fashion industry.

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