Exclusive Q&A on the High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 report. By Rafaella de Freitas
The High Streets and Town Centres in 2030 report was the conclusion of an inquiry led by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee of the House of Commons. Town centres and our shopping experience have been reinvented with next day deliveries, free returns and (bonus!) the comfort of not leaving your house thanks to online stores. This, combined with changing demographics, the trend of moving away from small towns to cities and the domination of chain commerce (how many Costa coffee shops do you walk past on your way to work?), has prompted a massive shift in the usage and scope for town centres and high streets to survive (and thrive) as our shopping habits change.
The Committee’s inquiry sets out to understand the role of high streets and city centres in sustaining social, cultural and economic health to local communities, and to evaluate the impact of the changing high streets on these.
Chaired by Mr Clive Betts MP, the Committee questioned a number of stakeholders - academics, business leaders, city planners, retail associations, local councils, online and high street retailers and ministers and parliamentarians - to evaluate the situation from multiple perspectives, as well as receiving written evidence submitted by people and organisations who felt like they wanted to have their voice their opinions and concerns (as explained in our Fashionista’s Guide to Politics, anyone can submit written evidence to an open committee inquiry, and it is a very important part of your right to representation and democracy).
As the secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion, Fashion Roundtable strives to be the voice of the fashion industry in Parliament. We took a special interest in the conclusions of the report which outlined the fate and future of high street retail. Last year marked a dire turn for many brick-and-mortar shops, with the closure of Irish designer and pattern creator Orla Kiely’s high street stores and of the iconic Toys R Us, as well as branch numbers being reduced by New Look and Marks & Spencer. The APPG for Textiles and Fashion and Fashion Roundtable are working to develop incentives for innovators and creatives to stay in the UK, as these closures do not only indicate that current high street retail models are failing and outdated. Fashion employs over 890,000 in the UK, with many of these being in the retail sector; livelihoods depend on strategic forward planning. These closures send negative signals to entrepreneurs and aspiring designers who would want to set up their business in the UK, especially in the on-going Brexit landscape, where a lack of clarity has become the norm and taken up so much time and funding from both Whitehall and businesses as they aim to minimise risk.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee shared their thoughts and insights and the main conclusions on their report in this exclusive Q&A with Fashion Roundtable:
Q1: Do you think the homogenisation of the high street has a role in the decline of high street shopping?
A: The Committee’s view was that, if the high street was going to survive and thrive by 2030, it needed to adapt. Our vision is for activity-based community gathering places where retail is a smaller part of a wider range of uses and activities and where green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services combine with housing to create a space based on social and community interactions. Having a focused locally based offering has undoubted advantages.
Q2: How can consumers contribute to encouraging a thriving high street and local community?
A: UK consumers have taken to online shopping with enthusiasm, spending more online (€77.63 billion in 2017) than any other European country. However, that should not mean consumers no longer visit their local high street. We agreed with Bill Grimsey that the 21st century town should be about an activity-based community gathering place where retail is no longer the main anchor anymore, but is used for a far wider suite of activities by consumers; green space, leisure, arts and culture and health and social care services must combine with housing to create a space that is the “intersection of human life and activity” based primarily on social interactions rather than financial transactions.
Q3: The report highlights the urgency of the cause. Given the number of pressures that the UK and the government is facing, why do you think saving the high street should be a priority in regard to tax revisions?
A: We heard compelling evidence that High street retailers are paying more than their fair share of tax, while online retailers are not contributing enough. For example, Amazon UK’s business rates amounted to approximately 0.7% of their UK turnover, while high street retailers are paying considerably more, with business rates as a proportion of turnover ranging from 1.5% to 6.5%. If we want to address this fundamental inequality in the system and at the same time secure the future of our high streets in the long-term, the Government needs to go further and move faster to level the playing field between online and high street retailers
Q4: What can we do to offset online brands paying so little tax while our high streets are floundering?
A: We recommended that the Government urgently assesses the main proposals that we received in evidence, including a sales tax, an increase in VAT, an online sales tax and ‘green taxes’ on deliveries and packaging, and make recommendations for change to provide fast relief to high street retailers and level the playing field between online and high street retailers. We then said that the revenue raised should be used to support the high streets in the following ways:
A reduction in business rates for retailers in high streets and town centres;
A 12-month holiday for high street retailers from rates increases which result from investments to improvements in property; and
An increase in the funding available to local areas through the Future High Streets Fund.
Q5: Do you think there is a danger that private investment in the high street will undermine small and local businesses?
A: We didn’t hear lots of specific evidence in this regard when it came to small and local businesses. However, we did hear evidence that the private sector alone could not be relied upon to kick-start regeneration. From a private investor’s point of view, Mark Williams told us that “The reality of delivering this is not that the public sector has to pay for all of it, but there has to be some form of intervention”. We therefore concluded that achieving large-scale structural change will require an intervention normally led by the local authority, backed by cross-sector collaboration. However, given the financial pressure faced by local authorities, central government funding will be needed for this, as well as significant private sector investment.
Q6: In the age of social media and ever increasing alienation (especially in the youth), do you think education and local schools have a role in reforming the high street?
A: We did hear evidence that we should be thinking about the public facilities and public services that should be in town centres, what should be there in terms of health and education facilities. We therefore recommended that the Government consider whether its town centre first policy should be updated to reflect better the non-retail uses, for example health, education and leisure services, that will become increasingly important in the future. Notwithstanding that, we also said that, where appropriate sites are available, public bodies should take the lead and locate health, education, leisure, administrative office and other services in town centres first. This is also why we came to our fundamental conclusion that a shift is now required from the retail focused activities of high streets and town centres today to new uses and purposes which foster greater social interaction, community spirit and local identity and characteristics.