James Max: How to save the high street
Forget Portas and her recommendations, LBC presenter James Max thinks he has the answers
Another retail casualty. Comet.
I wrote back in January about their problems. They won’t be missed.
Even if they return in another guise, the brand and format is feeble. Killed by the internet or by poor management? Or killed by a lack of customer service? A combination of all three.
Will you miss any of the high street stores and retailers that have gone bust in this recession? No. Arguably we’ll be better off without them. So the cry will go up… Oh, but what about Woolworth’s? What about Woolworth’s. All that store did was teach a generation of youths how to nick stuff without being caught and a younger generation of toddlers how to pull things off shelves, scream and make a mess.
Honestly, I am surprised the shop lasted as long as it did. However, there is a much more serious issue to tackle. If we don’t fix the high streets of Great Britain, within 30 years, they’ll be gone.
Action is required now.
Not just by the government but by you as well.
The British high street is a wonderful resource. Through a combination of dreadful planning laws, local authorities using them as a cash cow, oppressive corporate tax structures and an uneven playing field, we have allowed wanton destruction to take place.
If we are not careful we’ll do what we do so well in Britain. Build something up only to pull it to pieces.
With nearly 285,000 retail outlets in the UK and retail sales of over £300 billion every year, retail is a massive sector in our economy.
I am not suggesting that we won’t be spending in 30 years. Far from it. I am sure we will continue to spend. Increasingly online or in bigger retail units in ever larger shopping centres.
I don’t have a problem with that. I rather like a big shopping centre. It serves a purpose, houses big name retailers and brands and can be a pleasurable experience. However, I also like to get away from omnipresent identikit brands. I often try to seek out personal service, artisan shops, individual taste and design, quality to experience the art of retail.
“It’s important that we don’t try to fix something that cannot be fixed”
The government recognised there was a problem. So they tried to hire an expert.
They were busy, so Mary Portas got the call.
I have a lot of time for Mary. Her TV shows are excellent and I “get” the need to have a face onboard to drive a process, the problem is simple. Whilst her ideas may make a small difference to a small number of high streets, we have totally ignored the real problems. And if anyone thought £50 million would make any difference at all, they are clearly not fit to govern.
Why don’t people go to high streets any more?
It’s quite simple really. Parking is difficult, the retail mix is often poor, service is lacking, prices aren’t that competitive, often they are an uninspiring place to be, it’s not that convenient and on a windy or wet day it’s more of a punishment than a pleasure.
Combined with the ease of going to a shopping centre where parking is often free, the environment is pleasant and most importantly the retail mix is well thought out.
But those are the symptoms. In essence the high street must serve a different and new function. That means laws and legislation need to change to facilitate the transition.
It’s important that we don’t try to fix something that cannot be fixed.
“If you don’t make the effort to seek out entrepreneurial local traders. Then don’t be upset if you wake up tomorrow and they aren’t there”
What’s the point in trying to replicate what shopping centres or big box retailers or even the internet is doing? There isn’t.
The high street needs to be reinvented. Every high street needs to become a destination for a broad range of individual shops, restaurants, small business and specialist services.
We need government action.
National and local taxes are the biggest obstacles to change. Sole retailers with, say, less than 5 units should have preferential tax treatment. The advantage of being settled in an offshore tax haven should not be allowed to undercut the plucky sole trader.
The practice of raising business rates based on a notional annual rent should go. Local tax and national tax should be based on performance rather than capital value or rent.
And another important change is to our property law. Offer incentives to landlords who offer leases to less financially secure tenants. Further incentives to those who offer leases based on turnover and on flexible terms.
People often ask why we have ended up with the same high street names up and down the country. Simple. As a landlord whom would you rather have in one of your properties? A sole trader? Or a national multiple? Exactly.
But I am not finished yet.
Incentives to set up a family business that can be handed on through the generations without generating a massive tax bill every time someone dies.
Councils have to end their pernicious parking policies. Transport too and from the high street by all forms of public and private transport need to be encouraged. Simply by offering free parking to those who live nearby and offering reasonably priced facilities for those further away would help.
And then there’s the Use Classes Order. Gradually eroded over time, each high street should be able to restrict not only use, but also national multiples should have a restriction on their presence.
I am a huge fan of big and successful businesses. Up to a point. The balance is too far in their favour. That’s leading to an uneven playing field and preventing new entrants.
As Adam Smith and Napoleon both commented, “Britain is a nation of shopkeepers”. At this rate, we won’t be. For a nation that has done so much to develop the retail experience and opportunity whilst building its economy and social existence on a sophisticated method of trading, to forget those trading roots would not only be a shame but an economic catastrophe.
However, there is one last piece of the jigsaw.
You. If you don’t go to your local shops. If you don’t make the effort to seek out entrepreneurial local traders. Then don’t be upset if you wake up tomorrow and they aren’t there.