Should Local Authorities step in and rescue our Town Centres

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With the new media focus firmly on Brexit and the snow, many of us will not have noticed that in the last eight weeks the following announcements have been made:

  • Prezzo to shut 100 restaurants including the entire Chimichanga Chain
  • Jamie Oliver shuts restaurants and restructures his business
  • Byron restaurant chain shuts 20 outlets in a rescue plan
  • Toys R Us enters receivership after failing to secure the support of creditors
  • Maplin slips into receivership after poor trading
  • House of Fraser is in talks with their landlords
  • Debenhams has axed 320 store managers to cut costs
  • Carpetright announced a profit warning
  • Marks and Spencer are closing stores, with an expectation of more to come

Up and down the country our high streets are seeing a rapid reduction of retailers and food and beverage operators. This is all happening as the government is looking to end the central rate support grants and allow Local Authorities to retain more of the business rates they collect, and to keep new business rates that they can generate from new developments.

The on-line retailers are driving a boom in commercial warehousing and the small entrepreneurs are using the new storage centres like Big Yellow to support their online outlets. But while these generate business rates, these revenues are not on par with those being lost. Neither do they provide a vital public amenity like our town centres.

On the high streets, a combination of rising business rates and rents is hitting all operators, at the same time as the retail sector is having to respond to a paradigm shift in shopping habits. The real estate sector has already seen the merger of two of the largest owners of shopping centres, Hammerson and Intu Properties, and they were rewarded by immediately dropping out of the FTSE100 and relegated to the FTSE250. Westfield has reported flat figures but remains positive, but in Australia its parent company is subject to takeover bids.

Our high streets are more than generators of business rates, they are the heart and soul of our communities. From city centres to district centres, they provide amenities that we need to retain to ensure access to basic provisions and social interaction that healthy communities need.

In Berkshire, there are two local authorities who have already stepped in and taken the lead to rescue their town centres. Brave and visionary action by the politicians, as when they started the economic pressures were less. But now as Bracknell and Wokingham start to deliver their new town centres, it looks that their actions will come just at a time when the retailers and restaurant owners need them the most.

Bracknell has been a 20-year mission for Leader Cllr Paul Bettison and his officers. The journey has been a roller-coaster, and without the political leadership remaining firm the new Lexicon centre would not have opened in August last year. It has cleverly addressed the problem that all new town centres age at the same time, and now blends different designs and cleverly re-uses older buildings. The mixture of shopping, eating and entertainment is perfect and gives a new sense of destination to the town.

Wokingham is embarking on a complete reshaping of its historic town centre and has taken control of the process. They are retaining some of the new retail properties to enable them to help new niche retail operators enter the town and create a different retail and visitor experience to that being offered in Bracknell and Reading. They have brought entertainment back into the heart of the town centre with a three-screen cinema. The blending of retail and entertainment and the reshaping of the town centre to provide shops that are modern and fit for purpose will help Wokingham take on the competition of the bigger towns, and give their residents access to vital shops, services, restaurants and entertainment on their doorsteps.

Some will say that the current situation is just a natural adjustment, and that companies who failed to respond to changing trends will simply be replaced by (hopefully) better ones. However, what if that’s not the case? The high street is a major economic contributor to local economies up and down the country. In fact it could be put more strongly, without our high streets, our communities will struggle to survive.

Is this just happening in the UK? No, in 2017 over 5,000 major retailers and food & beverage outlets closed. This included the closure of 206 department stores such as JC Penny and Macy’s (US Equivalent of HoF and Debenhams).

It is clear that local government needs to find new solutions to the high street experience and protect our communities, it may be time for the Local Government Association to bring together the landlords and retailers, to work together to tackle this problem head-on, rather than wait for further damaging deterioration. Their leadership could help other local authorities to follow the positive examples of Bracknell and Wokingham.

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