It feels a long time since the ‘Queen of Shops’ ran the rule over the health of the British high street. The result of Mary Portas’ ‘independent review into the future of our high streets’ was £1.2 million of funding split over 12 pilot towns: Bedford, Croydon, Dartford, Greater Bedminster, Liskeard, Margate, Market Rasen, Nelson, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees and Wolverhampton. Time has not been kind to the review, which has largely been branded a failure (as have several of the pilot towns), and the ‘Queen’s’ crown was dented.
So, what now? With high profile closures gathering pace, there is an urgent need to address the health of our high streets. Solutions must focus on the practical and the implementable. There are two broad groups. One around what retailers must implement to continue to attract shoppers in the online age. The other on what central and local government must do to ensure retailers are supported and that the right balance is struck between shopping, eating, living, working, and events. It is this second group we are most interested in.
To continue the theme of reviews, Bill Grimsey’s (in 2013 and 2018) have been better received. The imaginatively named ‘Grimsey Review 2’ – launched at the LGA’s annual conference in Birmingham this year – is shaping the current debate. It is now widely accepted that the high street is fundamentally changing, and that retail will play a significantly smaller part.
Among the 25 recommendations is a complete overhaul of the business rates system with the potential for replacing it with a land or sales tax; establishing a landlord register to improve patchy knowledge of who owns our high streets; improving flexibility in the planning system to allow for swifter changes in building use class; and establishing a Town Centre Commission for each town centre, led by the local authority. Grimsey rightly stresses the paramount importance of local leadership throughout.
But how best to foster this leadership? Whilst there are resources available for curious council leaderships online, Julian Dobson of Urban Pollinators was right to say in his evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s ongoing high streets inquiry, that nothing can rival sitting down and sharing best practices and experiences face to face. But just how easy is this for time and financially-pressured local authorities to do? How regularly is it happening?
Over the next few months Cratus Strategic will be exploring ways of enhancing the ability of local authorities to get to grips with this challenge. If you’d like to be involved, get in touch: [email protected].