Skip to main content

Chief Executive's Blog: High Streets Matter, But What do They Need?

Chief Executive's Blog: High Streets Matter, But What do They Need?

We’re hearing lots of talk in this election campaign about high streets, and that’s really good news. I could dwell on a technical point here: most convenience stores trade away from major centres and in our heartland of housing estates and villages, in fact the places close to where most of the electorate live and where they want to see government support directed. But I’m fine with the language of “high streets” because I think when politicians use this term they usually mean physical retail, hospitality and business spaces, wherever people are coming together to engage with each other and buy things.

There’s not much dispute that high streets matter, but what do they need? My advice is to be deeply suspicious of any single solution that’s put forward. Every place is different, and it would be bizarre for national politicians to mandate one approach across the country. There are some themes though, and I hope a common agenda that we can all – local authorities, businesses, community groups and future Ministers – work to.

Item one: how can we make sure that the services local people will need in the future can be provided? Before you think this is a recipe for top-down state determination of whether you get a chip shop or a Chinese takeaway on your local parade, let me assure you I mean the exact opposite. Governments (local and national) shouldn’t be telling the market what can and can’t be provided, but they can promote the conditions for businesses to respond to local needs and support the provision of essential services. If your local area needs a banking hub because the three banks that were there ten years ago have moved out, let’s help the local convenience store to offer a banking hub, or an ATM, or cashback. If the pharmacy has closed down, let’s help another business to invest in offering repeat prescriptions and other services that would otherwise be lost. If the pub has closed down, help the local shop to expand to offer food and drink on the premises. No two locations will be exactly the same, but there’s a common theme of working with what’s there and helping maintain access to the services that are needed. Sometimes the existing local businesses won’t be able to step in and fill the gaps … all I know from working with retailers for a while now is that if you give them a bit of help some people might be surprised how innovative they can be.

Item two: how can we make our high streets and neighbourhoods safer? Sometimes the obvious needs stating: if people don’t feel safe to walk to their local shop or to visit their local high street after dark those businesses can’t be viable, and if the colleagues working in those businesses are fearful of not coming home safe after a shift we won’t be able to find people to run and work in those businesses. The political media like to split out social and economic policy, crime prevention is essential to both because you can’t have prosperous neighbourhoods that aren’t safe.

Item three: how can we use the levers of government to make businesses want to invest? This might be on a local level through grants, incentives and support (see item one, above) but at a national level this is largely about business rates. This has become such a running debate because it’s nice and easy to opine that the business rates system is outdated and unfair. I want to move past that: what’s the right system for the future? Quite simply its one that incentivises investment. Offer a banking hub or pick up a lost service and see your rates bill fall. Provide essential services and get a negative business rates bill, ie the council pays you – why not? Let’s end the debate about how to change business rates as a property tax and start a discussion about how to re-invent it as an investment incentive.

We should be really encouraged by how high streets have risen up the political agenda. Now let’s think practically and radically about how to help them.

This entry was posted by Chris onTue, 11/06/2024 - 10:01
Join a network of the most innovative retailers in the sector
Join us today
See more members