New high street revival plans to rescue UK retail fall short for indies

06 July 2022, 08:55 AM
  • With the cost-of-living crisis spelling trouble for the already struggling high street, urgent action is needed to restore footfall
New high street revival plans to rescue UK retail fall short for indies

New plans to transform over 200 UK retail properties have been revealed as part of a “high street revival” initiative led by a cross-sector coalition including landlords and retailers. 

As Ion Fletcher, policy director of the British Property Federation, explained to Retail Gazette, “Thriving town centres are a carefully balanced ecosystem and it is vital the property owners, local authorities and communities are all engaged in a collaborative process to create a dynamic mix of uses that meet local need.”

But indies and trade bodies aren’t entirely on board with the proposals and feel government action is needed.

Tackling empty properties
One main proposal is the introduction of a High Street Buyout Fund to help communities buy empty high street properties and build “long-term resilience in town centres”.

As Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli, explained, “I honestly believe that it would take a lot more than just buying up empty premises and giving small businesses access to them to sort out the high street.”

“If the aim were to create an environment similar to successful town centres which are full of independent shops (places like Ludlow, Brighton Lanes, The Norwich Lanes area) then apart from using existing empty premises there would need to be a concerted effort to reduce the number of town-centre premises used by charity shops, bookies etc. which have their purpose but which don’t necessarily offer a reason to visit the town centre

“There should also be some form of restrictions on multi-chains to allow the town centre to be totally different and give each town the opportunity to create its own character. Prevent (as best as possible) that creeping effect of every town centre looking the same with each one having a Costa Coffee, a McDonald’s and several well-known clothing chains. 

“I believe a town centre will only survive and grow if it were to offer something completely different to what is found in a shopping mall. If you want uniformity visit the local shopping mall, if you want individuality then visit the town centre.”

Martin McTague, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, agreed, “There is a wide consensus that high streets need and deserve more care and attention from policymakers and councils, as a bustling and thriving high street is a vital asset to the local community, with small businesses very much included. 

“The diversity of the business and amenity mix on high streets must be protected, as this is what differentiates them from big-box, out-of-town developments.”

Business rates
The coalition has also proposed a specific business rates relief for regulated, socially trading organisations, set at a minimum of 50% of their business rates bill.

However, this does not extend to small businesses, and trade bodies are pushing for increased government action. Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium, told Speciality Food, “It’s encouraging to see local communities think innovatively to keep our high streets and town centres vibrant. 

“But Government must play its part to bring down the business rates burden, which disproportionally impacts retail, so that shops have the resources they need to invest in thriving town centres.”

Martin added, “We would like to see a full reform of the business rates system in England, rather than tinkering around the edges. 

“Increasing the threshold for 100% rates relief to £25,000, as we would like to see, would lift 200,000 small businesses out of rates altogether – most of them, we estimate, in levelling-up target areas. 

“This would allow entrepreneurship to flourish, filling empty spaces on high streets and giving breathing space to businesses facing spiralling input and operating costs, and would also have a far wider reach and potential for reinvigoration than a narrower rates relief and auction model.”

Other areas to focus on
According to experts, tackling empty premises and the business rates crisis wouldn’t automatically restore the high streets. There is a huge uphill battle for local councils and indies to draw Brits back, including improving transport and parking, educating consumers about the value of their locals, and offering something unique.

As Martin explained, “Local authorities must look at issues such as ease of access, whether consumers travel by car, by public transport, by bike, or on foot. Alongside logistical considerations, even temporary or cosmetic changes, such as street festivals or better lighting, will help to remind people of the value of their local high streets.”

Differentiating from the multiples is critical to high street success, and Mark suggests offering something entirely different to the big chains. “I would love to see a selection of premises which would be available for short-term start-up/pop-up businesses”, he told Speciality Food.

“Allow new innovative businesses to try out their ideas or their proposition in real life to see how it works. To then offer a staging post so that alongside pop-up spaces there are then spaces available for those businesses who have proven to be successful/popular and adding something to the town.”

As Martin concludes, “If the government allows the cost of living and cost of doing business crisis to spell the end for countless high street-based businesses, it will be an act of economic self-harm, risking a further downward spiral as local areas decline. Urgent action is needed.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing