Everyone’s into high streets and town centres these days and there is a large volume of material out there and advice to follow. Little seems to have done much good to date, but we can live in hope. This is not an easy subject and there are few magic bullets out there, so we have to keep on experimenting and trying.
Much of the discussion in the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Review meetings has focused on trying to develop ideas that are locally driven and developed – in short clearing out the barriers and getting out of the way for local experimentation and actions.
It is in that sense that the recent London Assembly publication ” Open for Business: empty shops on London’s high streets” is of interest. London is more populous than Scotland and has a different density, feel, spread and make-up. But, to a degree it has control over some of the levers on high streets – just as in Scotland.
So what did they conclude? There are nine recommendations (I am not sure if there is a priority order here):
- There should be a London-wide service for small businesses to help negotiate new lease terms with landlords.
- The Empty Property Rate Relief in London should be limited to 2 months and savings reinvested in the Small Business Rate Relief Fund.
- The recipients of Empty Property Rate Relief should be publically identified in a London-wide shop register
- The Future High Street Forum should focus on pop-up and interim uses for empty shops.
- Betting shops, payday loan shops and pawnbrokers should always require planning permission and over-concentration of these uses should be stopped.
- There should be more Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in London.
- There should be a new Compulsory Purchase Order for medium-term shop leases available to local authorities and BIDs.
- Car parking space turnover should be prioritized by pricing and free parking as part of pricing structures.
- The Future High Street Forum should focus on integrating the high street with the internet.
You will make of these what you will, but for me the interesting elements are the publicity over who owns what and who keeps property vacant, which I feel is long overdue, and the extension of BIDs, not just in numerical, but in capability terms. This is more than a little controversial, but we have to ask if, given the obvious failure of traditional LA models, it isn’t time to try new things more radically? Given the success of BIDs in Scotland in recent months, one would hope that the Scottish Government would not be so short-sighted as to cut the seed-corn and operational funding available. We need grown-up, joined-up decisions at this time.
I also liked the sound of focusing on the turnover of parking spaces, but can see problems of congestion and monitoring. But maybe it is worth a trial in some places, along with de-pedestrianisation and other reverses of policy. What’s to lose?
Oh, and by way of background, the London shop vacancy rate is c7% – it is double that in Scotland. So how much more urgent is finding solutions to the problems here?
Like most I have read views by many who have some answers to the High Street’s problems,however one area that I do not hear discussed is having the skills and knowledge to run a retail business. I come across many new shops whose owners have started up with little or no previous knowledge of retail and as a result are very quickly in trouble, many have their dreams dashed on the rocks. Within the mix of remedies there should be monies put into skills training concentrated mainly, but not exclusive to the independent sector, to reduce the attrition rate of new businesses.
You are right of course that we need better prepared, trained and supported retailers. The sense I get is that the problem you note is less than in the past due to the changing structure of retailing (though harder times make this more difficult). There may be problems in the lack of requirement for training, the training availability and quality itself and the willingness to take this up.