Helping our High Streets

20th April, 2013 12:51 pm

Today one in seven of Britain’s shops lie empty. In some places it is as many as one in three. At the same time we are seeing a decline in the variety of businesses that make up our high streets; there are now more than twice as many betting shops on British high streets as all the cinemas, bingo halls, museums, bowling alleys, arcades, galleries and snooker halls combined. There has been a 20% increase in the number of payday lending shops in the past 12 months alone.

This is a tragedy. Our high streets and town centres are the hearts of our communities. They offer jobs, services, convenience and can be a place to bring communities together and anchor local economies. We need to help our high streets recover and thrive.

Some have suggested that the demise of the high street is inevitable as we increasingly turn to the internet for our shopping. While it is true that the rise in internet shopping shows no signs of slowing, we would be wrong to assume that the rise of the web has to come at the expense of the high street. The latest research shows that many shoppers use a combination of store visits and the internet to make purchases and that people still value shopping as an experience. As a result, the most successful high streets are those that have good mix of retail, leisure and services.

The Government should be supporting our high streets through this transition and ensuring that they are able to evolve in ways that reflect and benefit the local community. Instead, local authorities and communities feel increasingly powerless to shape their town centres or do anything to halt the over-concentration of certain types of premises, such as payday loan and betting shops, which can alter the character of a high street. This can put off people from visiting or investing in our high streets, and damages other businesses already there and independent retailers in particular, which rely on the highest footfall possible.

Labour wants to take action to empower communities and their elected representatives to create sustainable places where they and their neighbours want to shop. That’s why last week Ed Miliband set out how a future Labour Government will help high streets up and down the country. He announced that Labour would give councils the freedom that they have been asking for so that they can require certain premises, which are identified as a problem locally, to apply for planning permission so that they can’t simply take over shops without local people having any say in the matter.

Labour’s proposals will help communities up and down the country to play their part in creating places they want to live. But it is only the first step in a long process of looking at what else we can do to ensure that, as the heart of our communities and a spring board for new businesses, our town centres prosper.

In the run-up to the 2015 election we will be looking at innovative new ways of bringing together local businesses, councillors and members of the public to plan for the future of their town centres and giving them the tools and support to deliver on these strategies.

We want to look at how we can give areas the flexibility they need in planning policy to ensure that their areas can adapt to meet changing needs and demand. This may involve localising powers over permitted development rights and will definitely mean proper neighbourhood planning.

This will take time and input from our members and supporters across the country. But it will be worth it. Our high streets need help now, and Labour won’t duck the challenge. You can submit your views on the Your Britain website here.

Roberta Blackman Woods is a Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister

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  • JoeDM

    Society has moved on. The idylic view of the town centre cannot be recreated in the world of superstores and the internet. The social structures that supported it have mostly gone and it would be a dreadful waste of resources for any government to try to force it back to life. We need to live and adapt to the current economic reality. The old style town centre shopping street full of independent retailers and department stores is a thing of the past.

    • My local high street features nearly twenty independent shops and there are four big-chain supermarkets nearby. Even though the high street shops aren’t able to compete with supermarkets on price they have been able developed their own niche markets and score very highly on quality.

      For some, business has declined considerably over the last three years. This can be put down to Osborne’s mismanagement – austerity has stripped demand from the economy, causing two shops to pull down the shutters last year – but most are optimistic.

      The range of initiatives outlined by Roberta would be most welcome and would assist by providing a bulwark against the degradation perpetrated upon some high streets by ruthless corporations.

      • JoeDM

        Nothing to do with Osborne and everything to do with the need for families to to do one-stop-shopping. Charity shops were a growth sector 10 years ago.

        Very little to do with ‘ruthless corporations’. The incompetence of local authority planning departments and dreadfully high local Business Rates are more of an issue.

        The idylic old style busy shopping street of the past was a feature of an economy where women did not have to go out to work and had the time to do multiple trips to the shops every week and where supermarkets were just overgrown grocers.

        • Quiet_Sceptic

          Very true.

          Also worth remembering that none of the ‘ruthless corporations’ marched in to take over the UK. They all started as small retailers with one or two shops and grew in size, year by year, by giving the customer what they wanted.

        • NT86

          You make a good point about high streets changing. Even in the 1990s retail shifted away from the high street and into catalogue brands where you could order things like fashion, etc over the phone. With online shopping that’s become more convenient. I walk through my local high street and over several years you see how small boutiques and independent shops just come and go.

          Thing is, what do we do with those high streets if they’re not viable in their current form?

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            Convert them to other uses such as housing.

          • Brumanuensis

            I think we’re forgetting about the potential environmental ramifications of the decline of the high street. If people have to go to out-of-town shopping centres to do their shopping, it just perpetuates the car-intensive, suburban sprawl-inducing pattern of development that will further damage high streets (creating a vicious circle) and create fewer spaces for public interaction. One of the great cultural and economic benefits of cities and urbanisation in general, is that by bringing large numbers of people into proximity with one another, they foster creativity and innovation. It’s hard to see that happening in the context of out-of-town shopping becoming the norm.

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            It’s not always that clear cut, looking at my home town the out-of-town development has largely been embedded into the suburbs it serves so journey length for many is shorter, it does damage the down centre though.

            I’m not convinced about the supposed benefit of town centres/high-streets as centres of creativity and innovation, what tangible evidence is there of this occurring? How much innovation actually occurs when people are out shopping?

          • Brumanuensis

            “How much innovation actually occurs when people are out shopping?”

            That’s not what I wrote or was referring to. My point was that if people have fewer and fewer reasons to use public spaces and interact in public settings, it reduces the everyday person-to-person contact that makes a society, as opposed to an aggregate of isolated individuals.

        • Wrong, wrong, wrong.

          The stripping of demand from the economy has everything to do with Osborne’s failed policies.

          Ruthless corporations:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhChGVaHVHA

          How it could be:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4csUSDs5j4

          • JoeDM

            Mmm… a somewhat blinkered approach to recent history.

          • Not got much to say? Why am I not surprised.

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      I’m not sure decline is inevitable, I think the high-street’s problems are more down to its failure to adapt to a changing society and its unfortunate predicament of being very dependent on the decisions of external parties like landlords and local councils which often pursue their own agendas, sometimes contrary to the interests of a those local high-streets.

      High streets could open longer and work to get customers in after work, they could make access easier and cheaper by making high-streets and town centres more car friendly.

      The shopping environment could be improved by investing more in maintenance and cleaning to make them an attractive destination to visit. Go around a large privately owned shopping mall and they are clean, pleasant and well maintained. The contrast with some towns centres is amazing; there’s bits of my local town centre which are grubby, untidy, smelly and generally unpleasant. This public space of the high street that many eulogise often it’s that attractive but it should be, it should be kept clean, tidy attractive and we should have maintenance and local policing which keeps it that way.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Surely part of the problem is that for many people high streets are no longer convenient.

    9-5 opening hours means that for many working people the high street is shut after work which pretty much rules out any shopping during the week. Of course the supermarkets recognise this and open later, or even 24/7.

    Most people get around using their cars and in a lot of towns/cities planning policies over the last 50 years have shifted employment out of the town centres and high-streets to areas like industrial/business estates so many people are no longer working in, or passing through the centre/high-street. Like it or not, people don’t like paying parking charges and like to get about in their car. Many councils and the high-streets they manage are not particularly car-friendly with parking restrictions, parking charges, restricted access etc. The supermarkets go all out to attract car driving customers with good road access and ample free parking.

    • Daniel Speight

      The use by councils of high street parking as a cash cow I’m sure causes immense harm.

      • AlanGiles

        I saw something ulmost unbelieveable this week – one of our towns betting shops has ceased trading (Havering council are forever on the prowl with CCTV equipped cars looking for “illegal parking”). I have no personal axe to grind since I don’t drive these days (part of my Greener lifestyle)

        I hold no brief for turf accountants, but even so, there is a little more unemployment, speaking of which, it seems the “labour” MP for Rochdale is ready to take over as chief “shirker” monitor when the old misanthrope from Birkenhead goes off to merciful retirement:

        “Simon Danczuk: “I go knocking on doors in Rochdale on a very regular basis and the people in Rochdale are quite clear that the trust in the welfare system has broken down. They see people on a daily basis who they perceive to be ‘swinging the lead’ and I think that’s probably true. There are people who are on benefits who should be in employment.” *
        (From the Order-Order website)

        I’d just say to Danczuk unemployment is on the rise again – where is he going to magic all these jobs up from?.

        • PeterBarnard

          Indeed, Alan G (re Mr Danczuk MP) : he is playing to the gallery, and using weasel words to do the playing.

          As for “I hold no brief for turf accountants ….. “, I must say a word or two in their defence.

          I think you’ll find that “Honest Joe, the bookie” does actually do what he says on the tin, and is a damned sight more honest than “professionals”, such as politicians, accountants, lawyers, journalists … and fulfils the expectations of “My word is my bond.”

          When I was growing up in South Yorkshire (a mining and manufacturing part of the country), it was fact of life that (i) the working man enjoyed his bet, and (ii) very rarely did this enjoyment mean that the family went without.

          Perhaps, these days, too many poor people see the high street bookie as an opportunity to escape from their misery. The answer, of course, is to reduce the incidence of poor people but both government and business don’t seem interested in this post-1979 – and that includes Labour 1997-2010.

          • AlanGiles

            “a damned sight more honest than “professionals”, such as politicians, accountants, lawyers, journalists … and fulfils the expectations of “My word is my bond.”.

            Hello Peter: I take your point, however, I have to cover myself from all angles – as you know there is another poster on LL who always ascribes the most selfish motives to me whenever I say anything, so I just wanted to let him know I am not a petrolhead who drives into town to spend my afternoons putting money on the horses. Actually I spent this afternoon in my garden and watching Snooker.

            Even one of our charity shops closed down recently!.

          • PeterBarnard

            Alan G,

            I think just two words – “Food Banks” – are apt and dire comment of the absolute failure of the economics of the last 30-odd years ; and, Food Banks first appeared in the latter years of Labour (but they were just carrying on with the acceptance that “the right has won the economic argument”).

            Yeah, right (if you’ll excuse the pun). Our politicians, business leaders and “policy makers” should be ashamed of themselves – not that they themselves will actually have occasion to have to visit a Food Bank.

  • Richas

    I know some don’t like betting shops but why exaggerate their growth like this?

    In March 2009 there were 32,022 bookmakers, three years later in March 2011 (the latest figures out) we had 32,340. All that has happened is that they have moved from less prominent “side street” locations to more prominent “high street” locations.

    They could do this due in part to a change in the 2005 Gambling Act which meant they no needed to show there was “unstimulated demand” at the location proposed but the main reason it has happened is that there are so many high footfall vacant sites now which they can rent at a discount to the prices charged in the past.

    The total wagered and lost in bookmakers has remained steady at about £2.9bn over this period but in real terms this is a fall. Please don’t mistake increased visibility of bookmakers for an increasing problem with regard to gambling or the high street.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    It is a little bit like eating spoonfuls of dry oat flakes with no water, this article. What is the point actually being made?

    The death of local retail in an internet world? The business model of the out of town supermarkets with free parking? The cost of shop rents? The ability of one woman with an industrial unit and a well designed website to serve a global market but yet never meet a customer, if she has a good idea? The fact that a betting shop opens and a local councillor does not like it?

    The only concrete suggestion is that Ed Miliband will give councils the power to stop certain types of shops from opening. Everything else in the article is “should be”, or “will be looking at”, and some vague statements about “communities”.

  • Cllr David Mayer

    It is a shame that our Party leaders have not addressed this issue before! City and town centres have been plagued for decades by not only closed down shops but up to 5 stories of empty buildings above the shops that could be used for housing. This would solve many problems as well as revitalise city centres.

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